From an evolutionary perspective women reach their reproductive prime between the ages of 15 and 24. Many societies support women becoming mothers during mid to late teen years. Yet most people in the United States would argue that 15 is too young for a young woman to become a mother. But why is having a child within this specific timeframe considered problematic? Policy makers, economists and the general public use several arguments to support anti-teen motherhood policies. Most of these arguments have significant flaws and miss the underlying problem affecting young women vulnerable to becoming teen mothers in the United States today.
Much of the U.S. public believes that having a child during mid to late teen years increases medical risk for both mother and child. Policy makers encourage this idea by citing increased risks for low birth weight, perinatal and infant mortality, impaired cognitive development and pregnancy induced hypertension as medical risks associated with adolescent pregnancy. Yet when controlling for economic indicators and social support, females over the age of 14 and their children do not experience increased medical risk compared to a 25 year old woman and any children born to her.
Policy makers and social economists also promote the idea that teen pregnancy and motherhood negatively impacts education and economic outcomes of teenage mothers. The argument goes that young mothers face lower education, higher unemployment and lower income compared to women who delay pregnancy until mid twenties or later. This belief underpinned the Bush administrations abstinence only education policy. By propagating teen pregnancy/motherhood as the cause of high school dropout and low economic attainment, abstinence only education provided a seemingly logical solution. If teenage girls do not have sex they cannot get pregnant therefore avoiding negative outcomes associated with pregnancy. The fact that teenagers will not abstain from sex just because you tell them to is just one of the errors in the Bush administrations reasoning. Studies used to support this argument do not compare outcomes of poor young mothers to women of the same economic background that delay first pregnancy. The fact is that many young women vulnerable to becoming teen mothers already find themselves disenfranchised from the formal education, social and employment systems. Some adolescents who go on to become teen mothers drop out of school long before their first pregnancy. Looking at the educational and economic outcomes of poor adolescent mothers compared to poor women who delay first pregnancy suggests that early motherhood does not put women and their children at any greater risk for long term poverty than if they delayed pregnancy. A high risk for limited education attainment, limited employment and poverty equally impacts young women growing up in poor communities regardless of whether they have children as teenagers or during later adulthood.
Adolescent pregnancy by itself is not the problem. Rather, conditions that provide young women with few opportunities to assert themselves economically and socially are problematic. The discussion on teen motherhood and interventions targeted towards teen mothers needs to reflect the economic and social inequalities that a majority of young mothers face. Teen pregnancy and motherhood does not drive poverty. Poverty and the limited opportunities do impact teen pregnancy rates and socio-medical outcomes for mother and child.
Cherrington, J. (2005). Politicizing dominant discursive constructions about teenage pregnancy: re-locating the subject as social Health:, 9 (1), 89-111 DOI: 10.1177/1363459305048100
Scally, G. (2002). Too much too young? Teenage pregnancy is a public health, not a clinical, problem International Journal of Epidemiology, 31 (3), 554-555 DOI: 10.1093/ije/31.3.554