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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