I like to think of myself as open-minded, but my inner tyrant takes over when a 15-year-old waxes romantic about becoming a parent. Why do we have age limits for drinking, driving, smoking, voting and military service but allow any kid to have a child? My personal prejudice has always been that women shouldn't have babies before they get their lives together -- back in college, I worried about my friend getting pregnant when she was "just" 29 and not yet finished with her doctorate. But my opinions also stem from experience in the teen-parenting trenches. In my 20s, I worked at a home for teenage mothers, where I saw girls as young as 11 give birth. Under state policies, which emphasized the importance of mother and child remaining together at all costs (never encouraging adoption), even the most immature girls were expected to assume the arduous role of motherhood. After several years there, watching nearly every girl fail spectacularly, I began to harbor unusual views on the inherent risks of teen parenting.
So it was with a good deal of cringing that I began reading StandUpGirl.com, sent in by a Broadsheet tipster. The site seems to be the work of a girl named Becky, who got pregnant as a teen, thought about having an abortion, then decided to keep her baby despite the many adults in her life who disagreed. She and a few other teenage mothers share their stories, answer questions from readers and invite readers to "share the truth about your unexpected pregnancy." The site also offers multimedia features like 3-D ultrasounds and visual graphics about pregnancy and video stories.
One personal essay, "Don't Judge Me," tells the story of one girl's decision to ignore her parents' wishes and keep her baby, along with random baby-rearing advice and scientific "evidence" that you're being a good mother just by looking into your child's eyes. Although "Mary" seems like a kid grasping at whatever will bolster her confidence, she obviously enjoys being a mother, and the scores of letters echoing her sentiments made me wonder about my prejudice against young mothers. After all, the prevalence of delayed adolescence -- embodied by 45-year-old professionals who ponder if they're "ready" to take care of someone else -- also has its downside. Maybe some girls do rise to the occasion, grow up early yet keep their lives and their sanity. Should girls who have babies feel like they are ruining their lives? But StandUpGirl isn't what it seems at first glance. Though it looks like a personal a Web site that sprang from a real girl's troubled life and then went corporate, a little cursory surfing reveals that it's actually the work of the Oregon Right to Life Education Foundation. In other words, it's a propaganda site aimed at getting young women who don't identify as antiabortion to keep their babies. Noting that "the site has succeeded beyond the group's wildest dreams," the National Right to Life News has analyzed its knack for drawing users from around the world and keeping them on the site. According to one article: "In Guatemala, a 'young woman' (visitors are assumed to be female, although the sex is unknown) searching for pregnancy advice on Yahoo found a link to the site. After watching the introductory story, she looked through the 3D ultrasound tour for six minutes and the embryoscopy tour for two minutes, and then read personal testimonies for nine minutes before leaving. She spent a total of 24 minutes getting pro-life information." This, I suppose, is the sort of Web stickiness that warms the hearts of those who are against abortion rights.
What's weird about StandUpGirl is that, as far as I can tell, adoption rarely enters the conversation. Instead, girls as young as 14 are gushing about the pleasures of motherhood and how glad they are they didn't "make a mistake." Some of the "real-life" stories (one wonders how real they are) are really stomach-turning in their total disregard for the complexities of girls having babies in terrible circumstances. One story features a teenager who chooses to have her baby after getting raped and describes how happy she is now. In a "Letter to Becky," a 15-year-old admits she doesn't think she can "do the baby thing" (sounds like the verbiage of an antiabortion activist, not a girl struggling with a serious decision). Becky responds with bromides about how mothering is hard work but "soooooo" worth it. The girl responds that she changed her mind and has decided to keep the baby! Another convert? Perhaps, but on a single message site like this, it's hard to know what's true. That I should have almost "fallen" for the site says something about how far "pro-lifers" will go to disguise their message as friendly peer-to-peer counseling and real-life stories.