Bristol Palin: Teen Pregnancy Warning Sign?

I love Cristina Page and think she’s brilliant — her book How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America is a must-read — but I’m not sure she gets in right in this article about how Bristol and Levi could be the teen pregnancy spokespeople we’ve all been waiting for. She writes about Bristol’s work for The Candie’s Foundation, which focuses on lowering the teen pregnancy rate, and argues that Bristol is an effective spokeswoman when it comes to the message that you don’t want to be a teen parent:

But prevention is not Bristol’s area of expertise (for sure). Bristol is much more interested in warning teens about premature parenthood than putting herself forth as an expert on teen pregnancy prevention. That, I think, is part of the reason why she sounds confused when discussing what teens should or should not be doing. Being a teen mom is her new expertise. This is where she becomes clear: she wants to use her experience to help other teens avoid the same fate. She explains, “If I can prevent even one girl from getting pregnant, I will feel a sense of accomplishment.” It’s on this point where Bristol and the Candies Foundation (which supports both abstinence and safe sex approaches) have a truly shared perspective, one that gets overlooked by the traditional teen pregnancy prevention messengers. Bristol’s and Candies’ shared message to teens is: you don’t want to become a teen parent.

The traditional pregnancy prevention messages have often missed this. They have assumed teens don’t need convincing on that issue. They assumed teens just need to know how not to get pregnant. But statistics provided by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy indicate that about one in five pregnant teens was trying to conceive. For this demographic, messages about abstinence and/or contraception are useless.

She’s halfway there, but misses the real message: Teenagers don’t need to be told “pregnancy isn’t fun;” they need actual, tangible incentives to avoid it.

The one in five teens who intended to conceive probably know that pregnancy means more diapers to change and fewer Saturday night parties. Teenagers may not have fully developed adult reasoning skills, but they aren’t idiots. And I would bet that most of the teenage girls getting pregnant intentionally do not have lives like Bristol Palin. For all the data which shows that teen motherhood is socioeconomically damaging for the mothers, what often fails to be mentioned is the fact that a whole lot of teen mothers were coming from lower socioeconomic positions in the first place; so sure, a lot of teen moms won’t go to college, but if college wasn’t on the radar screen anyway, that’s not much of a threat.

And that’s the rub: If we’re serious about decreasing teenage motherhood, we need to give girls a variety of options. Girls need a variety of potential and attainable life prospects; a variety of ways to earn respect in their families and communities; and a variety of ways to feel needed and important. They need health care that doesn’t depend on their status as mothers. They need an educational system that preps them for bigger and better things, and that isn’t just a holding pen.

They need all of the things that Bristol Palin has.

Bristol, of course, is a perfect example of the fact that teen pregnancy happens even to girls with privileged upbringings. But her story doesn’t do much to make teen pregnancy look difficult. She jets around the country going on TV. She has a large extended family that provides for her — she doesn’t have to pay rent or buy diapers or work two jobs to take care of her kids. She doesn’t have to grimace through the intentionally humiliating and bureaucratic process of applying for public assistance benefits. She doesn’t have to stretch her food stamps budget to the max every month. She doesn’t have to worry that she might have to take her kids to the local homeless shelter if she can’t scrape together enough for rent, again.

And she’s very lucky to have all of that. Every child and every woman deserves that, and of course it’s wonderful that she has financial and social support from her family. It means that she and Tripp will probably be just fine, and will be the outliers in all the teen pregnancy scare statistics. But it’s not what a lot of mothers — teenage or otherwise — have in the United States.

So consider me officially tired of the “teen pregnancy sucks!” mantra as a prevention method. We need to radically re-evaluate the way we approach teen pregnancy in this country. Prevention through access to contraceptives and comprehensive sex ed is key, but actually making peoples’ lives better — giving girls a reason to delay childbearing, but also making sure all women have adequate resources when they do have children, regardless of their age — is what really matters. I’m not sure Bristol Palin is going to be the spokesperson for that movement. And I’m pretty sure the Candies Foundation isn’t going to be, either — at least, not judging by their teen pregnancy prevetion “sexy” t-shirts:


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29 comments for “Bristol Palin: Teen Pregnancy Warning Sign?

  1. May 8, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I don’t have anything intelligent to add, other than–God, that t-shirt is creepy in a way I can’t quite articulate.

  2. UnHinged Hips
    May 8, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I’m sexy enough to keep you waiting…if I was an ugo hen I’d have to put out or you would leave me?

  3. UnHinged Hips
    May 8, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    *then, not hen.

  4. Katherine
    May 8, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    She doesn’t have to worry that she might have to take her kids to the local homeless shelter if she can’t scrape together enough for rent, again.

    I take from this then that the US doesn’t have social housing? I don’t know why I’m surprised, but it seems to be godawful that the Richest Country In The World (TM) doesn’t have measures to protect its most vulnerable (children) from homelessness.

    Of course, if you do have social housing, and single parents inevitably end up at the top of the priority list, then you get right wing idiots claiming this is an incentive to have children, but hey, you can’t have everything. I guess that’s similar to the Welfare Queen meme you guys have got?

  5. May 8, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Damn, that Candies T-shirt is some heterosexist shite.

    Anyway, I completely agree with you Jill—the way that so-called experts approach the teen pregnancy question is wack. Why do these experts assume that all teen moms get pregnant for the same reasons? The thing that most teen mom share is the misfortune to live a misogynist society that treats poor women and children like shit.

    Now this may just be my experience, but why does sexual violence always seem to be absent from the teen pregnancy debate? More than a few babies born to teen moms are fathered by adult men. Erasing adult abuse from the teen motherhood conversation is yet another way that we fail young people.

  6. May 8, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    They want to use Bristol Palin as a cautionary tale however because of her parents support she will never really know the struggles that many teen moms face. She won’t have to rush into a panic if the child support his not paid because she can fall back on her parents. As a cautionary tale she simply does not work. It is further ridiculous to have her once again touting abstinence when clearly she did not practice it and has stated that she does not believe that abstinence works.

    I do want to say that I feel sorry for Bristol because clearly she is nothing more than her mothers pawn. I find it ironic after chastising the media about talking about her family that Sarah Palin has no problem exploiting them to further her political objectives.

  7. The Opoponax
    May 8, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    If we’re serious about decreasing teenage motherhood, we need to give girls a variety of options. Girls need a variety of potential and attainable life prospects; a variety of ways to earn respect in their families and communities; and a variety of ways to feel needed and important.

    Word.

    I was luckily such a speshul snoeflaykke overachiever as a teenager that the issue of teen pregnancy wasn’t even on the horizon for me. But absolutely nothing was lost on me when my younger stepsister got pregnant (by a guy she had been casually dating for a couple months) at 21. She immediately went from Family Bad Seed to Most Beloved Offspring Evar. Every fuckup that ever happened to her was immediately erased. She rocketed from whore to virgin faster than you can say “Planned Parenthood”. In a lot of families, motherhood is seen as an accomplishment, no matter what the context.

    So, no, it doesn’t surprise me that young women who feel they don’t have a whole lot of options aren’t buying the “Having A Baby Will Fuck Up Your Life” argument – in a certain way, it probably seems like the opposite to them.

  8. piny
    May 8, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    It is further ridiculous to have her once again touting abstinence when clearly she did not practice it and has stated that she does not believe that abstinence works.

    Well, who knows what she actually believes? With her family, I’m not gonna call her a liar or a political amnesiac.

    That’s what gets me about all of this. It’s not even the hypocrisy. It’s the unfeasibility. She wasn’t abstinent. Her boyfriend wasn’t abstinent. Forget the awesome benefits of abstinence. It doesn’t work. Teenagers don’t do it. So it doesn’t matter how effective abstinence would be if highschoolers nationwide were actually adhering to it. They don’t. The better solution is always the one that isn’t impossible.

  9. May 8, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    About that T shirt: I’m thinking of a group of high school kids on a bus, or some such situation. A girl who isn’t – as Twisty puts it – Y2K femininity-compliant – who has zits, say, or doesn’t have a perfectly flat abdomen, or is flat chested, who, in fact, conforms to one of the hundreds of normal body shapes / facial shapes of growing girl children – steps up wearing this T shirt.

    The boys, en masse, mock, deride, and humiliate.

    Unless you are so conventionally pretty that no-one can find a single fault with you, this is going to happen.

  10. denelian
    May 9, 2009 at 2:06 am

    i *vividly* remember the day mother came home and had the specific “i just delivered an 11-year-old and we are going to my gynacologist next week and getting you a NorPlant”

    then i told her “that’s totally awesome, i worry that a condom might break” –
    and got grounded. because she didn’t know that i was having sex. she actually almost changed her mind, because she didn’t want me to have sex, and thought (i don’t know why!) that i would stop having sex if she did *not* give me birth control. i had to call my dad (who *did* know that i was haing sex… as a teen, i was much more likel to tell my dad something than my mother, probably because he lived on the other side of the country lol) and get my dad to convince her that not getting me the NorPlant wouldn’t make me stop having sex, the only thing it would do is make me more likely to get pregnant and totally screw up my life. he pointed out that, short of jailing me, she couldn’t *stop* me, and it was safer. i chimed in that i wasn’t going to tell *anyone* and that i was *NOT* going to stop using condoms. so i did get my NorPlant, and boy was it wonderful!

    i was still grounded for a month, though…

  11. purpleshoes
    May 9, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Katherine, we do have HUD/Section 8 housing, which is a combination of rent-controlled low-budget housing (“the Projects”) and renter’s-choice vouchers. You can lose your HUD eligibility very easily if the father of your children moves in with you, or if one of your children also gets a job. To my view the gap between “eligible for benefits” and “actually earning a living wage” is big enough that it does actually act as a disincentive for some people to seek employment (I know a woman right now who stands to lose the very nice apartment she’s lived in for six years because her son who lives with her got a job; she’s very upset, because a teenager’s minimum-wage job does not make up the change in the cost of rent in this town).

  12. jp
    May 9, 2009 at 11:00 am

    It’s just not true that all teen girls have a realistic understanding of what either pregnancy or motherhood entail. *Juno*’s sassy heroine made even heartburn and constipation look hip. And many girls think they are getting a cute little doll that they can dress up in adorable clothing and carry around to praise and acclaim, and don’t comprehend the reality of 3am feedings and crying and 24/7 responsibility for a helpless, needy little human.

  13. The Opoponax
    May 9, 2009 at 11:42 am

    And many girls think they are getting a cute little doll that they can dress up in adorable clothing and carry around to praise and acclaim, and don’t comprehend the reality of 3am feedings and crying and 24/7 responsibility for a helpless, needy little human.

    Then again, I often get the sense that many adults feel this way, too. And I don’t mean that to come off as patronizing — I know that the part of me that really wants kids someday tends to think more about the positive side rather than Woo Yeah I’m So Excited To Clean Up Puke And Poo. And it’s hard for anyone to really conceive of how difficult some hard yet rewarding task will be until they’re actually in it. See, for example, anyone who has ever gone to law or medical school.

    It’s probably part of human nature to de-emphasize the difficult side of complex situations and focus on the good. Otherwise nobody could ever convince themselves to do anything challenging.

  14. Harumph
    May 9, 2009 at 11:50 am

    denelian– Grounded for having sex! I remember when my mom found a condom wrapper in my room. She cried and did the whole guilt-trip thing. I didn’t really care, and I was pretty resentful because when she found my brother’s condoms it was like “oh you BOYS” but I was some kind of special snowflake virgin goddess. I’d lost my virginity on my own terms and quite enjoyed sex thankyouverymuch… she seemed out of touch. Beside, I was in high school and had been with my boyfriend at the time for almost a year… what did she THINK we did? Hold hands? Teenagers are curious and horny and bless their hearts for wanting to safely figure things out about their bodies and minds on their own. Lose it when you wanna lose it. If I’d waited until I was older I’d be a lot less confident sexually and romantically… We need to help younger people see the reasoning and reality of -all- of their potential sexual choices and give them what they need to make -any- of those choices safely.

  15. jp
    May 9, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Yay Harumph! I pretty much went through the same scene with my mom, including the double-standard with my older brothers. I chose to have PROTECTED sex with my bf at 16, and never had any reason to regret it. So all this pearl-clutching over teenagers having TEH SEX OH NOES…jeebus, people, it’s the 21st century.

  16. May 9, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    The irony of having Bristol Palin as a teen chastity dealer is that she has said, like I have said, and like lots of teenagers who had kids have said, that her baby is the love of her life. She’s glad she had him and she loves him and she’s proud of him — you know, like most/many parents feel, even the slutty unmarried ones — even if the timing wasn’t right.

    So there’s this odd line she has the walk where she loves her baby but must flog herself publicly for having him because of her age and marital status — while also projecting a perfect motherhood P.R. ideal alongside this chastity saleswoman routine — essentially saying, “Parenthood is great, it really is! I’m so happy! But you shouldn’t do it. It’s real bad.”

    _______________

    I often get the sense that many adults feel this way, too. And I don’t mean that to come off as patronizing — I know that the part of me that really wants kids someday tends to think more about the positive side rather than Woo Yeah I’m So Excited To Clean Up Puke And Poo.

    Well, duh. Babies are awesome and cute and sweet and smart and have the most delightful tiny shoes, but they also keep you up all night, ruin your relationships, and suck your bank account dry. That’s why I like to hold ’em and dress ’em up and not actually be responsible for ’em.

  17. LeAnn
    May 9, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Katherine,

    You sound really, really angry and self-righteous about “You guys” from the below comment..are you always this hostile? Whats with the hate? Who are you addressing with this ‘you guys meme” comment anyway, I am confused. Me? The feminist chick who has lived in 4 countries, speaks three languages and who votes Democrat? Whats with the implied message… that all of us Americans are Republicans? How many languages and countries have you lived in btw? just wondering…:) You do realize that you are on a pretty progressive web page and many people are Americans who are on it, right?

    “I take from this then that the US doesn’t have social housing? I don’t know why I’m surprised, but it seems to be godawful that the Richest Country In The World (TM) doesn’t have measures to protect its most vulnerable (children) from homelessness.

    Of course, if you do have social housing, and single parents inevitably end up at the top of the priority list, then you get right wing idiots claiming this is an incentive to have children, but hey, you can’t have everything. I guess that’s similar to the Welfare Queen meme you guys have got?

    ; is the comment that you left geared to make a positive contribution to this actual discussion? Or is it to imply that ‘you guys” are all americans, meaning from what you

  18. denelian
    May 10, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Harumph, jp –

    yeah, grounded. i was the oldest *child*. i was expected to be perfect in every way. i got grouded for not having straight A’s. i got grounded when my sisters didn’t do their work. i got grounded for not knowing aabout and drinking the spiked punch at a school dance.
    my sisters never got in trouble for any of these things. so it really was mostly just that i was the oldest, and my mother was a *lot* harder on me than needed

    but i had sex when i wanted to have sex. still do, 16 years later lol.

    i got Implanon yesterday. i miss the Norplant, but the Implanon hurt then putting it in (although the “your 32 don’t you want kids” from the nurse got old fast.)

  19. denelian
    May 10, 2009 at 12:11 am

    it hurt *LESS*. i can’t type. sigh

  20. May 10, 2009 at 8:17 am

    I just gotta say, on this lovely Sabbath morning: I am SO glad I sucked it up, put the religious doctrine aside and took the kid to get the Pill. :)

    Possibly, my greatest act of motherhood!

  21. Katherine
    May 10, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Um, LeAnn, you’ve seriously misread me. I meant that “you guys”, the US feminists, the US leftists, the US Democrats, have to deal with arseholes talking about Welfare Queens, and “we guys”, the UK feminists, the UK leftists, have to deal with arseholes talking about single mothers have children for housing. I was trying the empathise.

  22. Bagelsan
    May 10, 2009 at 10:54 pm

    Katherine: made perfect sense to me. I doubt that most of the liberal Americans on here feel the need for LeAnn to jump to our defense… if it doesn’t sound like you, it’s not about you, right? I try not to take critiques of an entire country personally, personally. And it really *is* godawful what America spends its money on.

  23. southern students for choice-athens
    May 11, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    It hard to avoid being disrespectful to Bristol Palin to critique her statements and role as “teen pregnancy prevention spokeswoman” since she’s a young mom who – as far as we can tell – is really just trying to make pro-social statements in her role as daughter of the first major political parties’ female vice-presidential candidate. We’ll be unrestrained in criticizing Sarah Palin for her policy statements – she’s a politician and takes positions which for the most part we’re vehemently opposed to – but it’s harder to criticize Bristol in the same way, or to the same extent.

    It ought to be noted though that there are serious problems any time a social movement – which pro-choice activists are in some way part of – takes a celebrity and tries to make them and their personal lives into a symbol for he movement. That’s a bigger problem we have with Christina Page’s blog post on how Bristol makes an effective spokesperson for “teen pregnancy prevention”. Celebrities can make effective spokespeople for noncontroversial causes like opposing cancer, for example, because no one opposes opposing cancer, and no one ever acting rationally chooses to get or wants to get cancer. Making Bristol a “teen pregnancy prevention spokeswoman” appears to follow in the long line of celebrity spokes people who, like alcoholics in a twelve-step program, appear to tell you to do as they do and not as they have self-indulgently, self-destructively done, and in the meantime to give them some credit for confessing their sins. Publicly. Again to be fair to Bristol personally we’ll assume she doesn’t personally have those motivations, but rather the movement spokespeople who turn her out with talking points like this maybe do have those motivations.

    Personally, we don’t believe that this is really going to have much impact on the free-will choices that teens make to risk pregnancy, after all, as we don’t believe they likely going to be more influenced by the message from Bristol’s PSAs and personal appearances, more that is than they would be influenced by the advice of health care professionals, assuming of course that those professional’s services were accessible to those teens, but hey, it’s so much harder to find debate these days over that – providing clinical services — rather than media talking head pillow fights over Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears, and “teen pregnancy” and “sex education” in general. Maybe that’s because if nondirective clinical services for young women, including minors, were more accessible, we might have – however slightly — more teens choosing to get pregnant and delivering healthy, wanted children who they’d keep and not put up for adoption – just like Bristol and Jamie Lynn. And maybe that’s the message the people who are arguing policy most want to NOT give.

    Yeah, better for teens to not get pregnant, whether or not they are sexually active, and get some sort of education, however marginal, so they can get a job, pay taxes, and consume, rather than have children, even if they intend to work and support them. Because we need young people doing that, you see – avoiding pregnancy, and failing that to plan on surrendering custody upon birth of the child – because that’s the best that we can get them to do to keep the faltering economy afloat. It’s not just good social policy, it’s in the best interest of the nation, if not the earth.

    Maybe that’s the real message here – teens, don’t get pregnant, and if you do plan on surrendering custody, because if you don’t work as hard as you can and turn around and spend it on stuff like you see advertised on TV and the internet – and Candie’s shoes, for example – yes, don’t have children, spend money on something else, spend it on plastic, pornographic crap if you have to, charge it to a credit card if you have to, or the terrorists will win. Extraterrestrial terrorists, we suppose, ones who may come and steal our natural resources because we’re obviously not taking care of them ourselves.

    So sure, make Bristol Palin a spokeswoman for teen pregnancy prevention.

    Just like ten years or so ago there were some who wanted to make Courtney Love and Monica Lewinsky spokeswomen for young feminists.

    And the names of the authors of this blog comment are Dr. Ruth Westheimer, PhD, and Alan Guttmacher, M.D.

    Ok, we were kidding in that last sentence.

    ;)

  24. asitis
    May 12, 2009 at 11:01 am

    You gotta wonder about those Palins. Do they really think this is a good idea? What’s the motivation? Money? Spin control? Bristol’s ticket out of Wasilla? As for Bristol Palin truly believing that abstinence-only is the way to go….. well, we know it didn’t work for her. Nor her mother. The last we heard from Bristol was her admission that abstinence is not realistic. How could that possibly have been taken out of context as she now claims?

    And what is Candie’s thinking? Why did they pick Bristol besides the fact that she is attractive and probably the moment’s most famous young mother? Not to be mean, but she’s not a role model for abstinence. She’s a role model for what happens when you always use a condom except for when you don’t use a condom. And if they are thinking she will give teens the hard truth of young motherhood… well, as has been pointed out here, she has family support and resources that most don’t have.

    And don’t get me started on that tshirt…….

  25. May 18, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    I think this discussion is missing the point of what the t- shirt is trying to do. I see it as an attempt to socialize teen women into modesty, which is a value that went away in America for a generation. I think that positive social constructions are necessary if you want to educate the youth. Everyday every teenager gladly consumes fallacies and misrepresentations of sexy. It seems like it has only gotten worse, because of these constructions. I think it would be important for peoples being men or women to promote modesty again in our culture.

  26. W. Kiernan
    June 16, 2009 at 7:54 pm

    UnHinged Hips:

    I’m sexy enough to keep you waiting…if I was an ugo hen I’d have to put out or you would leave me?

    *then, not hen.

    “hen” actually works better than “then” there, takes that pesky human “free will” part completely out.

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