This paper considers the problem of teenage pregnancies, especially in the United States where, although rates had been falling, this fall in numbers has now slowed in rate. It considers the reasons why such pregnancies occur and looks at various research studies and interventions. It then asks which positive steps might be taken to bring about further drops in the rate of teenage pregnancies and the promotion of positive health as well as promoting a decrease in risk taking among teenagers.
Teenage pregnancy is a growing social and medical problem, both in the United States and in many other countries, especially more developed ones. It is made worse by conflicting attitudes and behaviour, not just by the young people, but also by their parents and those in authority. Such pregnancies have always happened, but at the present time the problem has increased to huge proportions and, in the United State, declining rates of teenage pregnancy in recent years have now generally slowed But pregnancy amongst very young girls presents increased physical risks for both mothers and children, as well as obvious social problems, as stated on the March of Dimes ( November 2009) web page ‘Teenage Pregnancy.’.
Teenage girls have always got pregnant. Once puberty occurs girls are capable of
pregnancy ,at least physically, often for several years before they are generally considered emotionally and psychologically mature enough to care adequately for a baby and provide for it financially. In many cases these girls have little social support from their families, or from the child’s father. Teenage boys tend on the whole to be socially less mature than girls of the same chronological age (Michael Thompson, Raising Cain.) . Their mothers, at this stage in their lives, may still be concerned with bringing up younger siblings, or may be working full time. If the pregnancy is perceived as bringing shame on the family this makes the situation even worse, as the mother may feel alienated and alone. One parent may want to be supportive and one not, which places strain on relationships. Also there may not be enough space in the family home for her to have a room for herself and her child – especially if the background is an economically poor one.
Christensen and Rosen stated in 1996 that every year almost one million American teenagers will get pregnant.
Contraceptive methods have long been available, but in more recent times these have been very effective, as compared to those in use earlier. In 1995, according to a report from ‘Teenage Pregnancy’( 2010) the majority of sexually active teenagers were relying on condom use as a preventative measure.
Why do young girls get pregnant?
Even in the 21st century the answer may be as simple as innocence – they simply don’t know the facts or don’t believe them. They do not realize that their actions have such huge consequences. There are also a number of myths which young people choose to believe such as ‘You can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up;’ ‘You can’t get pregnant if your periods are not regular’ and many more such fallacies and misinformation..
The easy availability of drugs and alcohol adds to the likelihood of people acting irresponsibly. They take away inhibitions and so people do things they would not do if they were fully in control of their actions.
The break down of family life makes its contribution. If a child has parents who are separated or divorced their care can fall between two stools, i.e. neither parent is fully aware of what is going on. Also if a child ends up in care they may feel unloved and so will seek comfort wherever it can be found, whether just in having sex with someone or with the possibility of having a child whom they will love and who will love them. .
Parental naivety plays its part -‘My little girl wouldn’t do that’ or ‘She hasn’t got a boyfriend’ or ‘She is never out late at night ‘.
Embarrassment – they don’t want to go for counselling or to ask for preventative aid before they enter into sexual relationships, and so are unprepared, but don’t want to admit this.
They may be seeking independence. Having a baby could lead to them having their own flat or home and getting away from a home atmosphere they may find difficult or oppressive. The girls are young and so don’t realise all that having a child dependent upon you might mean. Although there are many positive things to be said about motherhood, having a child means giving time to him. This will mean changes to social life and may intrude upon time that could otherwise be spent in study or employment.
Media Influence – young people are bombarded with media messages. Some, such as popular films like ‘Juno’ (2007) and ‘Knocked up’ ( 2007), both of which are considered to be comedies and which are aimed at a young audience, promote a positive image of teenage pregnancy. Also pregnancies of those in the media, such as that of Jamie Lynn Spears at age 16, which may mean that some young women will deliberately get pregnant feeling that this is normal and ‘cool’. A visit to Jamie’s official web site shows a lively and successful young woman and no hint of possible problems caused by having a three year old child to care for. There are in fact no pictures of her with the child. .
There is also of course pressure from males who say such things as ‘It will prove you love me’ or ‘Everybody does it’’ etc. and even rape when they feel totally unable to withstand their sexual urges. .
Finally, according to the article ‘Babies having babies ’from Rip and Roll Incorporated, many teens report that they did not use contraception because they did not plan to have sex.
Consequences of Teenage Pregnancy
Apart from the obvious consequences for the girl and her child there are wider and long term effects, both social and economic. Her family are faced perhaps with a financial outlay they had not anticipated and cannot really afford as well as long term repercussions on family life. Schools and colleges have to make provision for girls who are pregnant and who may need to take time out to rest, or for antenatal visits, and who
later will need child care provision.
Social services may have to make extra staff provision as the number of teenage pregnancies rise. Some babies may be taken into care and these will require their own provision. Housing departments may need to consider providing housing especially designed for the single girl and her child.
The Present Day Situation
Figures released by the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, as described in The Mail on 13th November 2010, show that in the years from 1994 and 2002, pregnancies in under-14s dropped by half in the United States of America, even though the number of girls from aged 10 to 14 actually rose in number during that same period. In older girls aged from 15 to 19-year-olds, there was a drop of 30 per cent. Only in three areas, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Delaware was there no recorded decrease, according to an article of 13th November 2010 ‘Lower teenage pregnancies in America: Due to contraceptives use and sex education.’ The article describes how researchers state that the decrease can be attributed to teenagers who are sexually active yet who are using ‘highly effective and long acting contraceptives.’ On the other hand the report from ‘March on Dimes’ ( November 2009) states that one in four teenage mothers will get pregnant again within 2 years of initially giving birth.
In 2008, as stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 435,000 births to mothers aged between 15–19 years old.. This translates as 41.5 live births per 1,000 young women between those ages. The majority of such births were not plannesd, with almost two thirds of babies born to mothers aged less than 18 being unintended, and this figure falling only slightly to more than 50 among those aged 18–19 years. There have been steady declines in such births for a number of years, but this rate of decline has now slowed.
Government and None Government Interventions – Local and National
The Adolescent Reproductive Health Research program has the aim of supporting innovative research which will serve to cut rates of unintended teenage pregnancy and also integrate the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and H.I.V. They have a wide based approach which includes such things as using youth development approaches in order to better promote teenage reproductive health. The program also include such things as considering the various cultural influences on pregnancy intentions. There was a stress on Latino populations. Also attention is given to matters such as the role of the family, availabilty of heath services and access. Finally they take into account paterns of teenage behavior including the characteristics of sexual partners, abstinence, delaying sexual initiation and teenage contraceptive use.
As Saira Rizwan pointed out ( January 2008) it is felt by many that making contraception freely available approach is seen as being too liberal because, although it recognizes sex as a reality and offers a partial solution, it is felt that this could make the teenagers oblivious of the possible complications, social and economic as well as psychological, of many present teenage attitudes and sexual behavior patterns.
There has been a four year long study at the University of Oklahoma, the Youth Asset Study, which has a youth development approach. This is based upon the assumption that young people who are able to meet their personal developmental goals, are also those who are less likely to engage in behavior that places them at risk. They cite youths who are able to communicate with their families, are positve about schooling and who also have positive ideas about their futures, as being found to be less likely to engage in risk behavior that jeopardizes their relationships and also clashes with future aims.
The report by the researchers quotes from the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, which defines Youth Assets as:-
The attitudes, knowledge, values, skills and relationships that strengthen the ability of youth to become healthy, capable, and responsible adults.
This was a large study which included interviews with 1,100 teenagers, both male and female and their families. The participants, all from Oklahoma City, were selected from areas of the city which were diverse as far as economics, race and ethnicity. 97 of those interviewed initially were still part of the program at the end, a very high rate of retention. The findings reveal that those who were not parents were more likely to be drug free, not carry weapons, were more likely to be non-smokers and less likely to have been arrested . Having positive peer models was found to be very important, as was having good inter-family communications, as well as experiencing parental monitoring and respect for their own culture. Belonging to groups such as sports teams was a positive asset, especially as this was likely to be linked to having a healthy lifestyle. Other community involvement also has a positive effect. Having a religious background also had a positive effect as did having self confidence. Those who had positive educational aspirations were also found to be less likely to be involved in risky behavior.
The University of Columbia’s School of Social Work has a clinic based approach to the situation related to the families of Latino and Afro-American and teenage health. This involved intervention by parents in clinic settings, while their child was being examined. The aim was to reduce adolescent sexual behavior by reaching a high number of parents. This can be linked to the Oklahoma study in that the positive intervention of parents has been found to have a positive effect. Another study was led by the same researcher ‘Entre Families: family and cultural influences on sex among Latino youth.’.The aim was to consider what kind of behavior could be considered appropriate for Latino teens, given their cultural background with its stress on family, machismo and marianismo i.e. the stress on female virtue and purity.
Characteristics of teenage pregnancy
According to the March of Dimes ‘Teenage Pregnancy’ (November 2009) teenagers are more likely than older women to give birth to premature infants and those with low birth weights. Their infants face higher possibilities of bad health, including long term disabilities and even fatalities. This is linked to a number of negative actions by the mothers involved such as being more likely to smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs, and
to eating in a less healthy way. Teenagers are also less likely to receive adequate antenatal care, as pointed out in the same report. The mothers are much more likely than their peers to drop out of school, which means that later their employment opportunities will be affected and so the children are more likely to be raised in poverty.
On the other hand, while educational failure, resulting unemployment, poverty and subsequent low self-esteem are definitely found to be the negative outcomes of much teenage childbearing, the reverse is also true and teens are more likely to get pregnant if these things are already present. .
A report by Saira Rizwan in the American Chronicle (January 2008) suggests a
multidisciplinary and multilevel approach is required in which ‘The government, states, churches, schools, civil society groups, and even Hollywood, need to come forward to help solve the challenge of teenage pregnancies.’ She cites CNN reports that 17 states will not allow sex education in schools and these do not receive government funding. She also says that there are 14 states where both contraception for teens and abstinence programs are allowed and which receive government funding and support. Finally she states that 19 states only allow abstinence programs.
As the Oklahoma study points out, young people need, as well as the support of families and other adults, opportunities to discuss the various media messages and also how to handle peer pressure situations. They should be encouraged to act as positive role models for their peers. Parents should be reminded of their responsibilities. They need to know where their children are, what they are doing and with whom they spend their spare time. In June 2008 the Washington Post carried a report by Rob Stein entitled ‘U.S Campaign to Promote Abstinence Begins’ referring to a $1million campaign by the National Abstinence Education Association. Salynn Boyle reported (February 2010) on the success of the campaign which was aimed at Afro=American 6 and 7 graders. It was felt that the result was equal in its effect to safe-sex education campaigns, or those with a combined emphasis. In group sessions, facilitators placed stress on abstinence and its benefits. Both preteens and teens were introduced to ways which could help them to to resist the pressure to engage in sexual behavior. The focus was on delaying sexual activity until they were older and better able to cope with the consequences of sexual behavior, rather than stressing that the young people should abstain from sex before marriage.
Parents however also need to be realistic and admit the possibility that their child is now physically capable of having a child of their own, and that teenage sexual activity may be a reality, as may its possible consequences. An undated report from the United Kingdom Direct Gov web page ‘Talking to your child about sex and pregnancy.’ explains that, though some people find the subject awkward, young people who are able to talk about sex with their families are more likely to delay having sex and also, when they finally do so, they are more inclined to use adequate contraceptive methods.
Parents have a responsibility to ensure their children are aware of the consequences of risky sexual behavior, even if they feel this is unlikely to occur. Even if appropriate contraception is used there is about a 3 risk of failure (Raizwan 2008). If pregnancy does occur, families need to support their child and ensure that they receive suitable medical care in order to lessen the likelihood of premature birth, and ensure as positive an outcome as possible.
At the present time there are 14 American states which promote sexual abstinence and which, at the same time also make contraception and contraceptive advice accessible. This it is felt ( Raizwan 2008) also helps to raise teenage awareness about such things as the benefits of sexual abstinence as well as facts about contraception, including the possibility of it failing. They are informed about these from a number of points of view, socially, economically and psychologically as well as explaining things from a medical point of view including details about sexually transmitted diseases. This could be a possible and realistic model for the rest of the country.
There will always be teenage pregnancies whether or not this is approved by society. As the reactions of the various states to this situation show the problem is by no means one that is cut and dried. However as reports such as that from Oklahoma University show, instead of emphasizing what young people should not do, there should be positive stresses in order to lower the possibilities. These pro-active interventions have been found to have a direct positive effect upon the likelihood of risky behaviour, including unprotected sexual behavior.Teenagers need caring and supportive parents, as well as other adults, to interact with them in order to help them to both learn and grow in healthy and positive ways. This will mean that eventually they are themselves more likely to make good and supportive parents in their own right. As Sairah Rizwan said (January 2008) they cannot do this by themselves and ‘It is therefore the responsibility of all concerned to stop fighting over the issue and start resolving it.’ or as Christensen and Rosen said (1996) ‘We must move beyond moral panic and denial.’ and instead honestly acknowledge that there is still much to learn, and much to do if truly effective and acceptable solutions are to be designed and utilized.
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