Now that the national attention on Bristol Palin’s pregnancy is fading (for the time being) it seems the only discussion it inspired was about John McCain’s vetting process and, by extension, his decision-making abilities. But there is another far more important subject raised by the 17-year-old’s pregnancy. For decades, teen pregnancy has been viewed as a problem, a danger to the children of young mothers and a hurdle to the success of the adolescent mothers.
But recent public displays of contraceptive failure by girls of visibility and means gives the misleading appearance that teen motherhood might be a lifestyle upgrade. Clearly one of the exacerbating factors is that someone like Bristol Palin is part of what feels like a growing trend: the normalizing of teen pregnancy and teen motherhood in the United States. Bristol is not alone in suggesting that to be a 17-year-old mother is not only acceptable, but exciting. Last year Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney’s then 16-year-old sister, had her baby. (The Spears family, it’s worth noting, were proponents of abstinence-only too.) Last year also featured the movie Juno, in which star Ellen Page played a 16-year-old whose quick-wit and sarcasm made her unwanted pregnancy seem as challenging as a bad case of acne. The attention garnered by each of these girls stripped away layers of what had for years been cautions against this very fate.
None of these occasions has prompted examination of the risks and damage caused by teen pregnancy and teen motherhood. And, it should be noted, recent data show that the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S., which is already the highest in the developed world, is on the rise. The last year witnessed a dramatic 3 percent spike in the number of pubescent parents.
Of course, Bristol, Juno and Jamie Lynn don’t exemplify the average American girl confronting unintended pregnancy. And the problem is the average American teen doesn’t really know that. The choice the fictional character Juno made, adoption, is almost a fiction these days too. Approximately 1 percent of pregnant teens opt to give a child up for adoption. And then Jamie Lynn Spears is a teen millionaire. Her pregnancy only enhanced her fortune. The first photos of her baby fetched a million dollars. The spotlight on Bristol Palin offers false comfort too. Bristol has resources available to her that none of her pregnant teen counterparts does — like the secret service, the ultimate nanny.
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The average teen girl would be led to believe that teen pregnancy doesn’t ruin adolescence, but instead brings lavish amounts of attention, an adoring and adorable teen father, and an endless supply of parental support. The reality for most teen moms could not be more different. According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, eight in 10 teen fathers do not marry the mother of their first child. Kids without involved fathers are twice as likely to drop out of school, twice as likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, twice as likely to end up in jail, and two to three times more likely to need help for emotional or behavioral problems. Children who live apart from their fathers are also five times more likely to be poor than children with both parents at home.
Teen mothers, typically left to go it alone, are less likely to complete the education necessary to qualify for a well-paying job — in fact, parenthood is the leading cause of school drop out among teen girls. College then becomes the remotest of possibilities. Less than two percent of mothers who have children before age 18 complete college by the age of 30.
Too often heartbreaking sacrifices are also foisted on the child of a teenage mom. The children of teen mothers are more likely to be born prematurely at low birthweight compared to children of older mothers, which raises the probability of infant death and disease, mental retardation, and mental illness. Children of teen mothers are 50 percent more likely to repeat a grade and are less likely to complete high school. The children of teen parents also suffer higher rates of abuse and neglect (two times higher).
Teen girls and their children are not the only ones paying dearly. Teen childbearing in the United States costs taxpayers (federal, state, and local) approximately $9.1 billion each year. Most of the costs are associated with services to address the negative consequences detailed above.
The issue of teen pregnancy needs to be taken seriously and there’s no better time than an election year to demand that.