Teen pregnancy: “Rational long-term economic choice”?

L.A. Times editorial about young parenthood slams stigma, upends assumptions.

Topics: U.S. Economy, Broadsheet, Economics, Love and Sex,

While some of us may stop short of actively mocking pregnant teenagers, current attitudes toward “the problem of teen pregnancy” are in fact stigmatizing and therefore counterproductive. So says sociologist Mike Males (now a researcher for YouthFacts.org, dedicated to reality-checking “the latest teen terror du jour”) in this week’s Los Angeles Times. “In truth, social- and health-policy discussions in this country would profit from abandoning the stigmatizing, prejudicial concept of ‘teenage pregnancy’ altogether,” he writes.

OK, I’ll bite. How come? The term itself “perpetuates pre-1950s sexist misnomers,” he says, noting that according to state and national birth tabulations, a majority of male partners involved “are not the high school boys frequently blamed” (Wait, “blamed”? “Frequently”? In Bizarro World?) but men age 20 and older. “So, instead of criticizing the ‘high rate of teenage pregnancy’ in the U.S., shouldn’t we be condemning the ‘high rate of adults impregnating teens’?” And: “Why is a 19-year-old woman knocked up by a 22-year-old man stigmatized as part of the ‘social problem of teenage pregnancy,’ but a 22-year-old woman impregnated by a 19-year-old man isn’t? Isn’t the real problem, regardless of the mothers’ ages, fathers who fail to support their kids?”

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Then Males really gets medieval on conventional wisdom, suggesting that “teen motherhood may be a viable strategy for poorer and minority groups in the U.S. and other countries to maximize the survival of their offspring.” Why? “Because poorer groups tend to die younger, having babies early in life may ensure that grandparents and extended family members will be alive and healthy enough to help raise children.” It’s not just evolutionary biology; it’s economics, he says, citing a 2005 finding that former teen moms — freed from child-raising duties by their late 20s and early 30s to pursue employment — had, by age 35, “earned more in income, paid more in taxes, were substantially less likely to live in poverty and collected less in public assistance than similarly poor women who waited until their 20s to have babies.” An earlier federally commissioned report, he says, reached — but buried — a similar conclusion: “Adolescent childbearers fare slightly better than later-childbearing counterparts in terms of their overall economic welfare.” In that context, he argues, “teenage motherhood may represent a rational long-term economic choice for poorer women.” (Not, he adds, “what activist groups that invoke the ‘social costs’ of teen pregnancy [want] to hear.”)

Speaking of whom, Males also takes a bit of the shine off victories claimed by organizations seeking to reduce teen pregnancy. Citing data from the National Center of Health Statistics, he writes: “The decline in births by teen mothers since 1990 consisted of 100,000 fewer births by married teens and their generally adult-aged husbands — hardly the group teen-pregnancy prevention organizations had targeted.”

He concludes: “If Planned Parenthood, the Family Research Council and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy really want to reduce unwanted teen pregnancies, they should study such factors as poverty, the older ages of male partners, the advantages having children afford poorer young women and the plunge in births among married teens and adults, among other realities. That would be easier if the stigmatizing concept of ‘teenage pregnancy’ was not part of our health-policy deliberations.” I’m not convinced that those organizations, except maybe the one that rhymes with “Ramily Bleesearch Douncil,” do not have those realities on their radar, that they aren’t aware, say, of the big poverty picture. Or that there aren’t “social costs” that come along with those “advantages.” And I’d like to have seen an example or two of what such deliberations would look like without stigma at the table. Not to mention a mention of access to full reproductive health options. But still, unconventional wisdom is almost always welcome. Your thoughts?

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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