Teen Pregnancy

When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg unleashed his recent elitist, race-tinged, poverty-shaming ad campaigns on the unsuspecting citizens of NYC, allegedly intended to illustrate the pitfalls of teen pregnancy, he sparked a fiery outcry that rages still — and rightfully so.

Toddlers with anxious tear-stained faces are captioned with statistics meant to alarm and shame teens out of having children. One ad even goes so far as to have a little Black girl mock and shame her future mother:

“Honestly mom, chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?

As expected, Planned Parenthood, spoke out against the ads. Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of NYC, said that the organization was “shocked and taken aback” by the strident tone of the bold campaign, reiterating that “hurting and shaming communities is not what’s going to bring teen pregnancy rates down.”

In a culture where women, particularly women of color — especially women of color living in poverty — are ridiculed and lambasted on a daily basis in the media, stripped of dignity in the face of one-dimensional statistics manipulated to further the already entrenched narrative that poor Black women giving birth is what’s wrong with America, one would think that denouncing this campaign as ineffective and cruel would be a no-brainer, right?

I could not have been more wrong.

In an op-ed for The Root, titled “Why Liberals Are Wrong On Teen Pregnancy,” political correspondent and author, Keli Goff, wrote that the criticism surrounding the campaign was “ridiculous,” “lunacy,” “well-intentioned but misguided.” According to Goff, Planned Parenthood’s position as one of the “nation’s leading sexual-health organizations” should preclude them from being in opposition to the campaign, even in the face of the organization’s “diversity” issues and “privileged” vantage point. Goff further states that PP is “celebrating and encouraging teen pregnancy,” which, in light of their mission, is so baffling to her that she asks her readers: “Did I miss something?”

Obviously I did, because I have not seen one response from Planned Parenthood that even suggests they are in favor of more teen pregnancies. In fact, because that is such a far-fetched accusation to fling, I felt compelled to check — and nothing. Not. One.

To Goff’s credit, she acknowledges that her position is not a popular one among her liberal friends and colleagues and that she fully expected them to tell her as much. And while we are not friends — we’ve never met but I’m sure we’d get along famously — I do admire her career and have rooted for her achievements. When Pat Buchannan told her to shut up on national television in 2008, I even got all sista-girl and said I know he didn’t. The fact that I even clicked on the link to read her article is a testament to the respect that I have for her opinion, but in this case, I found her position to be extremely problematic.

One of the primary criticisms the campaign has received is that it misses its mark. Instead of speaking to potential parents, it casts judgement on those teenagers who already have children, further stigmatizing them and their offspring in front of their peers and society. I emphatically agree. When I see these ads, I envision a resentful, dismissive voice hissing to a young girl staring forlornly at the poster as she waits on the bus to arrive: “Oh we’re not talking to you, your life is already screwed up; we’re trying to save your friend and their unborn children so we don’t have to take care of the little poverty-ridden bastards.”

Extreme? Maybe, maybe not. But the psychological implications of this campaign on teens who are already parents can not, or rather should not — be dismissed as a casualty.

Goff states that she is unconcerned with that stigma; rather she cares more about the stigma that awaits the children of single, teen parents yet to be born “because their parents weren’t ready to realize their full potential as parents while raising them.”

Here’s where I disagree: In the eyes of the law and most households, teenagers are still children.

There is no magical age, say around 11-years-old, that children learn to scream “Expecto Patronum!” in order to shield themselves from the cruelties of a bleak reality. Most teen parents come from broken homes — and by that I don’t mean one-parent households. I’m referring to those that replace love with negligence, discipline with abuse, positive reinforcement with shame. The focus should be on their adult parents, and to a larger degree, the socio-economic and political factors that lead to unstable households, not shaming and victim-blaming little girls at bus-stops.

Unlike Goff, I do not believe that “shame is an effective motivator.”  In fact, I think shame is so counter-productive and cruel that I’m embarrassed that adult politicians and marketing professionals — who care less about communities and more about the bottom line — came up with the idea in the first place.

If we want to talk about ways to reduce teen pregnancies, let’s address the fact that it has dropped by 27 percent in New York City over a period of a decade, according to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

 How, you ask?

The Health Department has a multi-pronged approach to reducing unintended teen pregnancy. It includes the distribution of a pocket-sized guide to clinics where teenagers can get medical care and low-cost or free contraception. The department also partners with clinics in the neighborhoods with the highest teen pregnancy rates, working to improve the quality of health care for teens. In public schools, the Health Department supports the Department of Education’s school-based classes, which provide accurate science-based information and use role-playing to help teenagers learn how to negotiate relationships and practice the skills necessary to make important decisions around reproductive health. In addition, all public high schools distribute condoms in the health resource rooms in each school. Through a combination of increasing education, skills-based learning, and access to quality health care, the Health Department continues to work toward lowering teen pregnancy rates.

No shaming in sight.

But I’ll tell you what has gone up: poverty. Yes, while Bloomberg is using poor, (potential) teen mothers as a red herring to deflect from racial and economic disparities that actually create conditions conducive to teen pregnancies, poverty has gone up — particularly for Black Americans who are faced with a 15.3 percent unemployment rate, while the nation stands at 8.2 percent.

Or how about education. According to “A Rotting Apple: Education Redlining in New York City” published by the Schott Foundation for Public Education:

  • Districts with higher poverty rates have fewer experienced and highly educated teachers and less stable teaching staffs.
  • • Students from low-income New York City families have little chance of being tested for eligibility for gifted and talented programs.
  • Community School Districts with no schools among the top set of schools—with Opportunity to Learn indices of 0.00—are in the city’s poorest neighborhoods of Harlem, the South Bronx, and central Brooklyn. Schools with the highest scores are found in northeastern Queens, the Upper West Side, and the Upper East Side.
Pedro Noguera, education professor at NYU, who wrote the foreword to the report, compared education in NYC to “apartheid.” John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation, went even more in depth:

This unequal distribution of opportunity by race and neighborhood occurs with such regularity in New York that reasonable people can no longer ignore the role that state and city policies and practices play in institutionalizing the resulting disparate outcomes, nor the role played by the lack of federal intervention requiring New York to protect students from them.

“Unequal learning opportunities for poor students and students of color have become the status quo in New York City. The current policy landscape in New York does very little to give these young people access to the supports, type of schools or qualified teachers that give them a substantive opportunity to learn. We need creative leadership to promote greater equity and alignment so the city no longer relegates our neediest children to the most troubled schools with the most limited resources, thereby limiting their potential for future success.”

It might behoove Bloomberg & Company to focus there instead of attempting to scare children already in a fight against society to keep their legs closed.

In a phone interview I conducted with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry last year prior to the Democratic National Convention, among the many things we discussed was the stigma attached to being a parent living in poverty in America:

 “I am truly a reproductive rights advocate,” said Dr. Harris-Perry. “I’m not just pro legal abortion…I also believe in highly accessible, insurance covered, hormonal birth controls. I’m also in favor of condoms being distributed in public bathrooms. I’m also in favor of the ability of poor women being able to have children, without being judged and stigmatized because they’re poor women. Just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean you’re not an adequate parent.”

That is what Bloomberg’s campaign is vilifying, poverty. It is not concerned with empowering teenagers not to have children, it is focused on reducing the city’s responsibility for healthcare costs associated with those who do. The bottom line: It is nothing more than capitalism masked as concern.

That is pathetic and it is dishonest. And in denouncing this campaign, liberals got it exactly right.

Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.

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