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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  • MommieDearest


    It’s been my observation, among family members, friends and aquaitances, that most teens do not get pregnant due to lack of knowlege or lack of access to birth control. They get pregnant because they “don’t like the feel of condoms” “don’t like taking pills” ” he always pulls it out *eye roll*” “it won’t happen to me” “I can just get an abortion if I get pregnant”… The excuses are endless. Sadly enough, there are teens who get pregnant purposely for whatever reasons. Many of them see nothing wrong with becoming a parent before graduating high school. Being a “baby mama” and “baby daddy” is cute. It’s cool.

    And, unfortunately, sex is used as recreation. It’s no longer viewed as a sacred act of love between two responsible, consenting adults who are committed to one-another. It’s simply a way to pass the time. Until this mindset is addressed, no amount of sex education and free birth control you throw at the situation will change it.

    As for the billboards, I don’t have a problem with them. They are too late for the teen who is already a parent, but if they get a few teens who aren’t parents to think twice before they act, then it’s worth the effort.

    • Anthony

      You hit the nail on the head! This ad is not aimed at young woman who are already mothers, it is about making sexually active or potentially sexually active teens think twice before they seriously complicate their lives with a baby.

  • Wong Chia Chi

    I love how this debate ignores the fact that some women, especially WoC and women who have more body fat than average CANNOT take hormonal birth control without suffering terrible side effects.

    The mildest I had was when I took Nuevaring. I had migraines that would LAY ME OUT for like a day and a half. I stopped taking it recently because I’m not sexually active and the hormonal change has made me break out when I’ve never had acne in my life, and I’ve gained some weight.

  • Afrostyling

    Keep deceiving yourselves as your OOW rate continues to increase. Keep making everything about race as if those billboards are not true. You would rather blame everybody but yourselves. Those billboards are true. Get over it! And Liberals happen to be the most racist people on the planet. Some of you black folks could definitely do wit some conservatism in your lives!

  • Shaming solves nothing

    Some of these comments are atrocious, I don’t think you all realize that the teens this ad targets are already in poverty. Some have already lived and breathed all of the “facts” in this ad, maybe they were even raised by teen mothers. Many of the “better” life opportunities wouldn’t be available to them regardless. Their inadequate educations and lack of resources has already significantly decreased their chances of finishing school, or going on to college. Since when has spewing out of context statistics ever changed anything? Why do we feel the need to shame our young women instead of giving them the power to make informed decisions and access to birth control? Let’s face the facts, teens are going to have sex these programs are pure tomfoolery. In my rural Georgia high school I was taught this philosophy of sex education. I was told to wait, I was taught that taking birth control came with a slew of side effects and that it was not healthy for young girls. Never once did my teacher offer a condom or teach us how to use one properly. Nor did he ever mention where we could find access to free reproductive services. My teacher instead chose to spout this shaming philosophy. My parents echoed shaming philosophy at home, they judged any young pregnant woman they saw. My father made no qualms about telling me that if I were ever to become pregnant that he would disown me. So imagine how I felt my sophomore year of high school when I realized I was pregnant? I had never had sex without a condom and couldn’t understand how it had happened.(it wasn’t till later that I found out that my boyfriend was a 16 year old nut job who liked to poke holes in our condoms.) I wasn’t on birth control at the time, because when I asked my parents for it my father IMMEDIATELY vetoed that one. He said that birth control would make me want to have sex.There was no way I could obtain birth control without my parents consent. Long story short, my mother found out about my pregnancy and forced me to terminate it. It was the best thing she could have done for me. My point in sharing this story is to show that these tactics don’t work (half of the girls in my graduating class had either multiple pregnancies or children). Instead of shaming our young women we need to educate them, and not just about sex. I mean let’s give them a real education not the stilted bullshit I was taught in school. Let’s pour more money into education, and pay our teachers more. Let’s teach our young women about all the great women that have come before them. We need to open doors and give them real opportunities, not shame them with insensitive bill boards and tie their hands with restrictive reproductive rights.