This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.
Are the nation’s efforts to curb Latina teen pregnancy actually making young Latinas more vulnerable?
Vanessa,* age 19, watched President Obama’s recent education address to
students while holding her infant son and sitting with her niece Liz,*
age 13. A few weeks earlier, Vanessa had become one of the growing
number of Latina teen moms in the United States, surviving on her
fiancé’s minimum wage job at Target and temporarily postponing a
college education. What are the country’s leaders telling Vanessa about
her socioeconomic future as a young mom? What are they telling Liz?
Vanessa’s story is quite common: Latina teens give birth at a rate
more than twice that of white teens. Latinos have a much lower high
school and college graduate rate compared to white teens. The millions
poured into programs aimed at curbing the Latina teen pregnancy rate
and urging Latinos to pursue higher education have been largely
ineffective. In fact, some of these campaigns may have inadvertently
worsened the situation by misplacing blame and perpetuating bias.
Instead of stigmatizing Vanessa, policy experts ought to be looking at
the complex structural barriers that offer her starkly different
choices than many of her teen counterparts.
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Myths — rather than realities — have too often guided the public
discourse about Latinas and pregnancy. Latina teens don’t have sex more
often than their white counterparts and most desire a college
education. In addition, despite the demonization of immigrants in
recent health care debates, most Latina teen moms are not immigrants.
So what is underneath the startling pregnancy statistics?
Compared to white teens, Latina teens have higher pregnancy rates
because they use birth control much less often and reject abortion much
more often. Religion and family influence are very important factors,
but for sexually active Latina teens these are not the only or even
most relevant obstacles to birth control usage. For many Latinas, the
top barriers to birth control usage are much more mundane:
transportation, lack of health insurance or cash for health services,
confusing and intimidating immigration regulation for households with a
combination of citizens and non-citizens, and lack of guidance about
available services. When teen pregnancy prevention programs and
messages ignore these obstacles, Latinas become distanced from sex
Sex education programs often tell teens that delaying parenthood
until they finish high school and college will bring them some version
of the American dream: a good job, economic security, family stability.
The troubling reality is that for Latinas this promise comes true for
only a limited few. Recent research confirms that Latina teen mothers
have roughly the same socioeconomic circumstances at age 30 as those
Latina teens who delay childbirth. The unfortunate reality is that
access to college and the opportunities that emerge as a result is
starkly different for Latina teens and white teens.
Latinas ought to be given the support they need to finish high
school and attend college. But it’s simply not enough to lecture Latina
teens about prioritizing education; we must make real investments in
tearing down barriers to educational opportunities and health care. We
must find better ways to support young parents like Vanessa who wish to
pursue college. Unfortunately too often the opposite happens. For
example, legislation recently proposed to address teen pregnancy would
have given a financial reward to college graduates who agreed to mentor
youth living in poverty, but would not have provided additional
resources to the young women. Shouldn’t the youth living in poverty get
the federal dollars to help them gain access to birth control and other
resources that might give young women the power to plan their families
the way they want them, rather than giving the money to college
Worsening this situation is the silly practice of one-size-fits-all
messaging for all Latina teens. A thirteen-year-old sexually active
teen poses very different concerns than a 19-year-old sexually active
teen. In fact, about 44 percent of teen mothers are adults like Vanessa when
they give birth — 18 or 19 years old — and they have needs that are
different than those of young teens like Liz. Messages that treat teen
pregnancy as an urgent health risk serve to stigmatize young adult
mothers rather than empower teens to live healthy lives.
It may be politically expedient to treat high Latina teen pregnancy
rates as the problem to be solved rather than the result of social
inequities — but it isn’t likely to be effective. Many reproductive
health advocates choose to focus narrowly on birth control messaging
and avoid the related issues of immigration status, poverty,
educational disparities and discrimination. But the result of this
narrow vision has so far proved disastrous. Politicians need to get to
the tough work of breaking down structural barriers to health care and
education, and re-focus their efforts on giving young women the
knowledge, access and power to plan their families in the ways that
work best for them.
In a nutshell, if we can clamp down on the ways that Vanessa and Liz
are stigmatized, and ramp up measures that expand access to education
and health care, our entire society wins.
*Names have been changed to protect identities