August 4, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
It’s the society we live in. We know a certain behavior is destructive, that it harms children and their parents, and taxes our societal resources; we know it’s unnecessary. But if we say any of those things and particularly if we criticize anyone who engages in the behavior, well, we can’t have that. To criticize such a person is so unfair; it shames her to know that she’s done something stupid, so, the theory goes, we must keep quiet. Somehow it’s just not right to let him know the truth about the consequences of his behavior. It’s better to lie, to tell him his actions are just fine and let him figure out later that we were leading him on.
Such is the message of this article (Women’s ENews, 8/1/13). It’s also the message of the conference the article reports on.
It seems that last year New York City ran a campaign of posters at subway and bus stops aimed at discouraging teenagers from getting pregnant, getting someone pregnant and having children. The campaign featured four different posters, each with a photo of an unhappy or pensive child and each with a different message. One read “I’m twice as likely not to graduate from high school because you had me as a teen.” Another said, “Got a good job? I cost thousands a year.” A third said, “Honestly Mom, chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” And the fourth read, “Dad, you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years.”
For now I’ll just remark that those messages drew the ire of people who think teenage childbearing is just the bee’s knees. Those made up the “No Stigma! No Shame!: Empowering and Supporting Teenage Families Conference” that met in New York on July 12.
When Bronx City Councilwoman Annabel Palma became pregnant at age 17, she kept her condition secret for eight months.
But now, in the wake of an ad campaign last year by New York City to reduce teen pregnancy that many denounced as degrading, Palma is telling her story and standing up for younger women who find themselves where she once was.
"Why are we spending taxpayer dollars that shame teens for the situation they're in?," Palma asked a gathering of about two dozen young mothers at a recent conference held at the Condé Nast building in Times Square.
Hmm. I’d have thought Councilwoman Palma could have figured that one out for herself. To someone with a smaller chip on her shoulder, I think it would be obvious that the ad campaign wasn’t addressed to teens with children, but to those without them. Its whole point is to try to acquaint kids with some of the consequences of teen pregnancy and parenthood. So messages like “It costs a lot of money to raise a child,” and “children born to teen mothers do worse on average than those with more mature parents,” are (a) factual and (b) worth hearing.
They particularly need to be heard by boys and girls who don’t yet have children. Maybe those messages will make some of them pause, or better yet, use contraception. But they’re also appropriate for teenagers who do have children because they might remind them not to have more, at least not yet. And they should be heard by the parents of those teens because they may become more likely to discourage unprotected sex on the part of their children.
There’s another reason why New York City was right to convey those messages. When the state takes a stand on an issue, it means something; it carries weight. Years ago, when Apartheid was going full blast in South Africa, there was a great debate in this country about whether to impose a ban on the sale of U.S. goods to the country’s police and military. The argument against the move was that the South Africans would just get the goods elsewhere, which of course was true. But that argument missed an important point in favor of the ban – that, whatever the practical consequences, taking a stand against an obvious wrong, is itself worth doing. The U.S imposed the ban; we stood for something worth standing for.
So it is in New York. The city spoke the truth in an effort to improve the behavior of some of its people. It did so in the hopes of improving the lives of children and the teens who can avoid early parenthood. It did so in the hopes of relieving some of the strain those young, needy lives impose on the finances of many governmental entities. Those are all worthy goals. To pretend that the ad campaign was nothing but a slap at innocent teenagers is just silly.
It’s worth noting that, without exactly saying so, Palma herself understands that teen pregnancy and childbearing aren’t good things.
Palma said that increased access to reproductive health resources and information, early childhood education and work force programs that allow teen parents to go to school and work simultaneously would be more effective ways to help teen moms and to lower teen pregnancy rates than using fear and shame.
She opposes a campaign that tries to reduce teen motherhood, but has her own ideas about lowering those rates. If teen motherhood is such a wonderful thing for all, why’s Palma so intent on “lower[ing] teen pregnancy rates?”
And of course she offers no evidence or even common sense for her proposition that adds up to “if we just make teen motherhood attractive enough, the kids will stop doing it.” What, after all, is there about offering greater access to health care, Head Start for the little ones and work-study arrangements for the mothers that Palma believes will discourage girls from getting pregnant? Palma’s not making sense.
One of the remarkable facts about “unplanned” pregnancy is that ready access to effective and relatively cheap contraception seems to make little difference in the rates thereof. That’s one of the findings of the Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. That organization surveyed sexually active teenagers and young adults and found that, to an astonishing degree, those who had no plans to have a family, were nevertheless not using any form of birth control. The point being that couples don’t procreate because they lack birth control options; they do it because they’re open to the concept of having a child, planned or not.
So maybe a little information about the real-world consequences of that choice is in order.
The good news about teen pregnancy is that the rate is way down – barely half what it was just 10 years ago. No one seems to know just why that is, particularly considering the fact that births to unmarried mothers are on the rise. But whatever the explanation for that, we need to start telling kids at an early age the facts of life – that kids need both parents, that kids cost money, that children are human beings, not just a fashion statement by their parents, that marriage is the most stable relationship for adults and the safest.
People like Palma don’t want to hear it. They’re too busy justifying their own actions and hustling governments for ever more funding to acknowledge what social science teaches. But hear it they must. In fact, we all must.
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