The vast majority of teenage pregnancies are unplanned. Becoming pregnant is a life changing experience for a teen. Pregnancy is a big responsibility in the best of circumstances. When a teen becomes pregnant, the responsibility can be overwhelming. Reducing teen pregnancy is an important challenge. So is supporting pregnant teens through pregnancy and motherhood.
Teen pregnancy is also a big opportunity. Statistics show that teen pregnancy is associated with lower education, lower income, and poor physical and emotional health for mother and child. Teen pregnancy is also more likely to be a fatherless pregnancy. Therefore, if we can reduce teen pregnancy, we have the opportunity to reduce many of the problems associated with teen pregnancy. Supporting pregnant teens can also reduce these problems.
This is especially important because these problems tend to be perpetuated from generation to generation. Daughters of teenage mothers are three times more likely to become teenage mothers than daughters of older mothers.
The State of Teen Pregnancy in America
Teen pregnancy is more common in America than in many other advanced countries. Each year, over one half-million American teens become pregnant. The good news is that the number of teen pregnancies has been dropping steadily. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teen pregnancies in girls aged 15 to 17 dropped by nine percent from 2014 to 2015.
Although the rate of teen pregnancy is dropping steadily for all Americans, it is significantly higher in some groups and in some areas of the country. Pregnancy rates for Hispanic, Black, and American Indian teens are about double the rate for white teens. Teens who live in poor states and teens who live in rural areas are more at risk. For example, the teen birth rate for Arkansas is 38 percent compared to 9.4 percent for Massachusetts.
Challenges of Teen Pregnancy
Teens who become pregnant face many challenges. These challenges are also our challenges. The adverse effects of teen pregnancy are problems for American society. Almost two-thirds of teen moms rely on public assistance and most receive no support from the father of the child. Living in poverty through their adult years is a common outcome. Other adverse effects:
- Teen pregnancy costs American taxpayers over 10 billion dollars each year in health care, foster care, and other associated costs.
- About half of teens who become pregnant never finish high school.
- Teen moms have higher rates of unemployment, health problems, and legal problems.
- Children of teen mothers have lower birth weights, higher infant mortality, and lower educational achievement.
- Children of teen moms are at higher risk for dropping out of high school, being sent to jail, being unemployed, and becoming pregnant before age 20.
Support for Pregnant Teens
When a teenager becomes pregnant, she needs judgment-free support right away. There are big decisions to be made. These are tough decisions that involve personal, cultural, and religious considerations. Options include:
- Having and raising the baby
- Having the baby and allowing a relative to serve as the primary parent, called kinship care
- Giving the baby up for adoption or foster care
- Terminating the pregnancy
All of these decisions require getting the right information and getting the right guidance. Teens who decide to have the baby need good prenatal care. Teens who keep the baby need a good support system. Kinship care can be informal or arranged formally through child welfare systems. Adoption can be public, private, closed, or open. Abortion decisions involve local laws, out of pocket costs, and spiritual and religious considerations.
Making the best decision for each mother is the challenge. Meeting this challenge is an opportunity to avoid adverse outcomes for mother, child, and society. These decisions may start with a teen’s pediatrician but may also involve parents, and social, psychological, or religious counsellors. There are many online support sources. A good place to start is at the Child Welfare Information Gateway.
Prevention of Teen Pregnancy
Prevention is the most important challenge and the most important opportunity. As Ben Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The CDC has targeted teen pregnancy prevention as one of its top “winnable” battles in public health. The CDC is identifying evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention programs around the country. An evidence-based program is one that has shown positive results. These programs target both boys and girls. These include programs for:
- Sexual education
- Youth development
- Sexual abstinence
- Contraceptive and sexual health
These programs are run by federal government, state government, and community or religious organizations. There are many programs and they are working.
Children at Risk?
All teens can benefit from programs that help prevent teen pregnancy. These programs might be especially valuable for a child who is at risk. Risk factors for teen pregnancy include:
- Living below the poverty line
- Having a mother who dropped out of school
- Having a mother who gave birth before age 20
- Living in a single parent home
- Frequent family conflicts
- Early sexual activity
- Early use of drugs or alcohol
- Low self-esteem
If we can win the challenge of teen pregnancy, we have the opportunity to achieve better health equality, improve opportunities for the youth of our country, and reduce the social and economic cost that we all bear.