Commentary Family

NYC Teen Pregnancy Campaign Brings Shaming to Bus Shelters and Cell Phones

Miriam Pérez

The New York Human Resource Administration's new teen pregnancy prevention campaign takes shame as a prevention tactic to an entirely new level.

The New York Human Resources Administration (HRA) launched a new ad campaign this week that takes the use of shame tactics to prevent teen pregnancy to a whole new level. The ads feature images of young children alongside messages to their would-be teen parents. It’s hard to describe the ads as anything but horrifying and yet another link in the chain of shame-based teen pregnancy prevention efforts. 

It might be hard to believe, but there’s a component to the campaign that’s even worse than the ads. At the bottom of each ad is a message: “Text ‘NOTNOW’ to 877877 for the real cost of teen pregnancy.” I followed these instructions, and what resulted was a really screwy game of “choose your own adventure” via text message. First, the “game” asks you to pick either Louis or Anaya, the two characters you can follow. I chose Anaya, and this is the first response I received:

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It only got worse, with more scenarios about Anaya being ignored by her “baby daddy” and shunned by her parents. None of the texts included any actual information for teens trying not to get pregnant—they just used an invented scenario to drive home the idea that teen pregnancy results in social isolation and losing your boyfriend. Below is the final text exchange in this version of the game. Just before, I was asked to respond “true or false” to the statement “Children of teen moms are MORE likely to drop out of school and not be able to make ends meet.”

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The text you don’t see at the bottom is me replying, “That’s mean,” which got no response from the SMS bot.

Why the hell is the New York City government spending money on a system to tell young girls that their boyfriend will leave them if they get pregnant? 

If you choose to follow Louis, the exchange is no better. The Louis version of the game offers even less practical information and further reinforces the idea that teen parents never stay together. Furthermore, like this ad, the Louis exchange emphasizes the financial consequences of child support. 

I’m sick and tired of teen pregnancy prevention money being spent on these kinds of media stunts. Where is the proof that stigma actually leads to prevention? The messages sent by these ads and the ridiculous SMS game make it seem like the HRA is fine with the status quo of shame and isolation for teen parents. A pregnant teen gets called a “fat loser”? “Well, she shouldn’t have don’t pregnant!” the campaign seems to say. What kind of message does this send about bullying?

These ads put all of the responsibility on teens themselves and present avoiding pregnancy as a panacea that will solve all their problems. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for youth today is staggering, even if they finish high school. Teen pregnancy is much more than a personal responsibility problem, but the campaign might as well be telling teens to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. 

The campaign also assumes that teens don’t understand how difficult it is to be a teen parent, and that they choose to parent as teens naively. I give teens more credit than that. Take blogger Natasha Vianna’s experience:

When I was a teen, I knew how hard it was to be a teen mom because I saw it in my family and in families around me. My mom was a teen mom, my grandmother was a teen mom, my aunt was a teen mom, my cousin was a teen mom, and so many more. Yes, I saw girls drop out of school and struggle with many aspects of their lives. I didn’t need a lame ad with a picture of a crying baby (who of course had to resemble a minority) to tell me that. Yet, at 17, I still became a teen mom and it was NOT what I wanted for myself. I never thought to myself, “Ahhh yes, statistics say my kid would be twice as likely to not graduate than kids born to moms over 22. SO, I will have a baby now before 22 and accept the challenge.” So what makes you think most teens are going to think the opposite? Pregnancies are usually unplanned and accidental. These ads don’t prevent unplanned pregnancies.

If the HRA wants to spend money on a texting program for teens, why not give them information about how to prevent pregnancy, such as where to get condoms and information about birth control myths? This campaign is an appalling waste of government dollars that seems likely to have more negative effects on teen parents than positive effects on teen pregnancy rates. Natasha again:

It’s this very concept of shaming teen moms that drives us into a deeper hole of isolation. I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was a teen mom, I didn’t want to ask for help, I refused to apply for any aid, and I put myself in unhealthy situations so I wouldn’t have to face the judgment of others. It was horrible. Yet, no one ever bothered to talk to me about the occurences in my life that led up to my pregnancy. Or what my life was like before becoming a pregnant teen. No one knew that I was already depressed in high school. No one knew that I already faced many of the adversities that teen moms face too. My life may have been exactly the same if I hadn’t become a teen mom but no one cared to look at me until there was a baby involved (that no one really cared about either).

The timing of this campaign is interesting, considering that data from 2008 was just released indicating that teen pregnancy rates are continuing their decline in most states, including New York. And what’s credited with this ongoing decline in teen pregnancy rates? Not perpetuating stigma or shame, but increased contraceptive use. 

News Law and Policy

Senate GOP Wants to Gut Family Planning, Teen Pregnancy Prevention

Emily Crockett

Senate Republicans released a funding proposal on Tuesday that would significantly cut funding for women’s health, including Title X low-income family planning and a key evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention program.

Senate Republicans released a funding proposal on Tuesday that would significantly cut funding for women’s health, including low-income family planning and teen pregnancy prevention.

House Republicans recently proposed completely eliminating Title X, the nation’s only low-income family planning program.

The spending bill proposed by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on labor, education, and health and human services would cut Title X by 10 percent, or $28.7 million.

A vulnerable population that is 90 percent women, about half Black or Latino, and mostly uninsured or young relies on Title X clinics for birth control, testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and cancer screenings. Some recipients have no other contact with the health-care system except through Title X.

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The Senate did not propose completely eliminating the program like the House did. But such deep cuts to Title X, which is already languishing under the arbitrary budget cuts from sequestration, could have serious consequences.

A 10 percent cut to Title X would increase the number of unplanned pregnancies by more than 82,000 next year, according to a summary of the new budget proposal released by the committee’s Democrats, and would deny 430,000 people access to comprehensive family planning and preventive health services.

The spending bill also guts the Teen Pregnancy Prevention (TPP) program by about 80 percent, an $81 million cut to a $101 million program.

If conservative legislators are interested in funding government programs that are proven to work, cutting the TPP is the exact opposite of what they should do, Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told reporters on a Tuesday press call.

“One of this nation’s greatest success stories is the extraordinary decline in teen pregnancy and childbearing,” Brown said. “I often ask people if they can think of any other major social indicator that has improved to this degree.”

The teen birth rate is down 61 percent since its most recent peak in the 1990s, including a surprising 29 percent drop just between 2010 and 2014.

And “it just so happens,” Brown said, that this decline coincides with the start of a focused federal investment in evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention. The TPP only funds programs that are proven to change teens’ behavior, not just their knowledge or their intentions.

“Why are we messing with success?” Brown said.

Brown was quick to add that one program alone can’t be held responsible for solving an issue as complex as teen pregnancy, but that the TPP has played a “leading role” in efforts to use research-based approaches over the past five years, and that the program is considered the “gold standard” of evidence-based policymaking.

The Senate bill eliminates the Women in Apprenticeships program and significantly cuts other job training programs. It also eliminates a community health program for communities with racial health disparities and cuts funding for substance abuse, mental health services, and numerous agencies responsible for enforcing labor laws related to wages and safety both in the United States and abroad.

The bill eliminates funding for the Affordable Care Act too. President Obama has threatened to veto not only any bill that hurts his signature health-care program, but also any bill that doesn’t roll back the deep spending cuts from sequestration.

“I am deeply disappointed with this bill, which would hurt families and communities and would double down on the automatic budget cuts that Republicans and Democrats agree are bad policy and need to be fixed,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Senate subcommittee’s top Democrat.

Commentary Family

Celebrating Young Motherhood During Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month

Gloria Malone

For many teenage mothers, May can be a challenging month to navigate.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

May is a busy month for advocates, between Mother’s Day and month-long campaigns around mental health and teenage pregnancy prevention. But for many teenage mothers, this month can be a challenging one to navigate. Not only do mainstream Mother’s Day images feature a very particular type of family and demographic, teenage pregnancy prevention ads usually depict teenage motherhood as the worst possible outcome for sexually active young people.

At this time of year, we advocates for teen mothers often wonder whom Mother’s Day is for.

I became pregnant and gave birth to my daughter when I was 15 years old, and ever since then I have been wondering in what narrative my situation was supposed to fall: the public health “problem” of teenage pregnancy or the possible celebration of motherhood.

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In reality, I’ve seen my motherhood acknowledged in less than flattering campaigns around teenage pregnancy. It’s hard for me to appreciate Mother’s Day when in the same month, and really throughout the year, people like me are targeted by elected officials, nonprofit organizations, foundations, those close to us, and public service announcements that say teens’ choice to parent is the cause of several societal issues.

We saw the juxtaposition of these two narratives last May, when Hallmark released a heartfelt commercial thanking mom “for her sacrifices” while the Candie’s Foundation continued the use of their ads in which teens are told they should “be changing the world … not changing diapers.” It’s as if parents—biological and chosen, teen and non-teen—are not changing the world every day even when they are changing diapers.

Given that teen mothers already experience educational pushout for being pregnant or a parent, our family members and friends judge us for our “poor life choices,” and we have the highest rates of postpartum depression than any other group of mothers, it would be nice to be able to fully enjoy the one day a year the nation comes together to express gratitude for mothers.

What if teenage parents received the same love and support other mothers get through ads and advocacy campaigns? What if teenage parents were told they are capable of making a difference in the world, and are doing so by providing the support their child needs, even with the odds stacked up against them?

To be sure, preventing unintended pregnancies is a worthy cause. The issues arise with the methods used and the month chosen to share these conflicting messages about motherhood. Teenage pregnancy prevention ads feature teens in ways that depict them as “DIRTY,” or our children in various states of distress.

Thankfully many former teenage and young mothers at Strong Families spoke out about their dislike of narrow and less than benevolent teenage pregnancy prevention ads around Mother’s Day, and Strong Families launched the Mama’s Day campaign in 2011.

Mama’s Day is a month-long celebration of mothers who are often overlooked and never represented in mainstream Mother’s Day narratives. Mama’s Day promotes the notion that “Mamahood is not one size fits all. All mamas deserve to be seen and honored in cards that reflect all the ways our families look.” One of the first Mama’s Day videos depicted teen and young mamas as mothers; people who embrace their motherhood not as a strike against them but as a marker of their strength and selflessness.

In fact, many teenage mothers wish that they would just be viewed as mothers and not solely as a representative of their age group or current circumstance. I asked Caitlin Shay, a mother of two who had her first child at 17, what she wished society would understand about teen parenting, for a piece I did for the health nonprofit Seleni.org. She said, “I wish society would look at us as mothers.”

May is already emotional enough for teenage mothers who might be dealing a myriad of issues, including state-sponsored kidnapping of their children. The least we as a society could do is replace stigmatizing ads with more educational, inspiring ones.