The real mistake in ‘teen pregnancy’

Given America’s increasing obsession with teenage pregnancy over the last three decades, it’s inevitable that sensational stories such as Gloucester High School’s mythical pregnancy pact would generate a media frenzy.

Ignited by Time magazine’s June 18 feature, the story exploded in the national and international media, growing wilder and wilder: Girls 16 and younger who lived in upscale Gloucester, Mass., conspired to get pregnant. When their pregnancy tests proved positive, they reportedly “high-fived” each other in celebration and fantasized about raising their babies together. A huge “spike” in the number of pregnancies at the high school, from an average of four in previous years to 17 this year, testified to a national epidemic.

None of the lurid claims in the article turned out to be true, however. Subsequent investigation revealed no pregnancy pact, no mass celebrations, no communal schemes, no pop-culture incitement. Joseph Sullivan, the principal of Gloucester High School and the original source of the story, wouldn’t name his sources. The three pregnant girls located in Gloucester turned out to be 17 years old. As for the proclaimed jump in pregnancies at the high school,Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports showed that school officials had apparently overlooked the fact that births among students had been higher in previous years.

The fictional Gloucester teen pact did provide reporters, officials and “experts” with another opportunity to lambaste teenagers who get pregnant and the reasons they do: pop culture, moral laxity and/or lack of sex education. Unfortunately, such commentators ignored a far more important truth revealed by the myth: The three-decade national teen-pregnancy furor is mired in unreality. Selected “facts” and fables are repeated, often wildly exaggerated and sometimes made up to suit the immediate needs of this or that teen-pregnancy prevention group.

In truth, social- and health-policy discussions in this country would profit from abandoning the stigmatizing, prejudicial concept of “teenage pregnancy” altogether. Dumping the notion would help end the quarreling among pregnancy prevention groups and eliminate many of the fact-challenged assertions they cite to make their case.

The term is counterproductive for two reasons. First, it perpetuates pre-1950s sexist misnomers.A large majority of male partners involved in teenage pregnancy are not the high school boys frequently blamed, but men age 20 and older, according to birth tabulations by the California Center for Health Statistics and national surveys.So, instead of criticizing the “high rate of teenage pregnancy” in the U.S., shouldn’t we be condemning the “high rate of adults impregnating teens”? In addition, in an era of gender equality -- in which men are expected to share in sexual responsibility and child-raising -- why is a 19-year-old woman knocked up by a 22-year-old man stigmatized as part of the “social problem of teenage pregnancy,” but a 22-year-old woman impregnated by a 19-year-old man isn’t? Isn’t the real problem, regardless of the mothers’ ages, fathers who fail to support their kids?

Another reason to jettison the pejorative idea of “teenage pregnancy” is that that teen motherhood may be a viable strategy for poorer and minority groups in the U.S. and other countries to maximize the survival of their offspring. Because poorer groups tend to die younger, having babies early in life may ensure that grandparents and extended family members will be alive and healthy enough to help raise children.

Teenage motherhood may actually make economic sense for poorer young women, some research suggests. For instance, long-term studies by Duke economist V. Joseph Hotz and colleagues, published in 2005, found that by age 35, former teen moms had earned more in income, paid more in taxes, were substantially less likely to live in poverty and collected less in public assistance than similarly poor women who waited until their 20s to have babies. Women who became mothers in their teens -- freed from child-raising duties by their late 20s and early 30s to pursue employment while poorer women who waited to become moms were still stuck at home watching their young children -- wound up paying more in taxes than they had collected in welfare.

Eight years earlier, the federally commissioned report “Kids Having Kids” also contained a similar finding, though it was buried: “Adolescent childbearers fare slightly better than later-childbearing counterparts in terms of their overall economic welfare.”

Unfortunately, such findings have been ignored by all sides in the debate. That teenage motherhood may represent a rational long-term economic choice for poorer women wasn’t what activist groups that invoke the “social costs” of teen pregnancy wanted to hear.

Dwelling on the social costs of teen pregnancy also leads to erroneous claims of success. Abstinence-education promoters such as the Family Research Council and sex-education boosters such as Planned Parenthood have rushed to take credit for the 25% decline in births and pregnancies by teens since 1990. But tabulations by the National Center for Health Statistics show that from 1990 to 2006, births by unwed teens -- those whom the programs and policies most strenuously sought to deter -- actually increased by 3%, as did births by unwed adults. The decline in births by teen mothers since 1990 consisted of 100,000 fewer births by married teens and their generally adult-aged husbands -- hardly the group teen-pregnancy prevention organizations had targeted.

If Planned Parenthood, the Family Research Council and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy really want to reduce unwanted teen pregnancies, they should study such factors as poverty, the older ages of male partners, the advantages having children afford poorer young women and the plunge in births among married teens and adults, among other realities. That would be easier if the stigmatizing concept of “teenage pregnancy” was not part of our health-policy deliberations.

Mike Males formerly taught sociology at UC Santa Cruz and now researches for the online information service