How to really help pregnant teens

Quit judging. Instead, address root causes.

It was common for pregnant single women in the 1800s to be called "lost, fallen, wayward, and depraved women." Fast forward to 2008 and spend a bit of time online and you'll read statements that refer to the 17 young pregnant high school women in Gloucester, Mass., as "sluts, idiots, harlots, and immoral."

This is not progress. We need to move beyond name calling. Let's ask ourselves not only about how we look at vulnerable young women in our society, but let's use those answers to help make a positive difference for them.

Today, the United States has double the adolescent pregnancy and birthrates of any other industrialized country in the world. Young mothers bear the primary weight of the physical burden, social stigma, parental responsibility, and the long-term economic impacts. And evidence about the link between childhood sexual abuse and teen pregnancy is growing.

Not all pregnant teens share a history of poverty, abuse, trauma, and isolation – but many do. Adolescent pregnancy generally stems from profound social, economic, and political issues rooted in racism, sexism, the disparity between classes, and a society that puts more emphasis on possessions than on relationships.

Granted, all young mothers should not be seen as victims, and we should hold them accountable for their choices. But it's equally important to hold ourselves accountable for allowing them to live in a world where pregnancy seems the only way to high ground.

It's easy to judge the choices made by others as "good" or "bad" without considering the range – or lack – of options open to them. Intellectually, most of us are aware that choice, opportunity, respect, and success look very different depending where you fall on the poverty line. But putting that into practice is key.

The way forward means taking the time to consider why young women might intentionally get pregnant or choose to raise their child once they give birth.

The truth is, we might be a better and more humane society if we understood that choice, opportunity, respect, and success are relative terms and that these terms can be perceived and achieved in very different ways.

On the outside, especially from a middle-class perspective, pregnancy might appear to be a "bad" decision that ends in a life of poverty, struggle, and underachievement.

But in the book, "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage," Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas challenge us to understand how perspective affects and shapes our judgment of single mothers.

The authors talked with more than 150 single mothers living in poor neighborhoods at Philadelphia's urban core. They found that, to these women, being a mother meant unconditional love; eliminating a sense of isolation; the ability to prove they are capable of maturity and high moral stature by being a good parent; and gaining control over their life. These mothers saw having a baby not as a burden, but as an opportunity.

Despite the many obstacles pregnant and parenting young adults face, experience shows that they can nurture healthy families and become economically self-sufficient if provided adequate support and by utilizing their tremendous strength and resilience. Disappointingly, our country's system for supporting them is frayed and patched. And judging these women doesn't help.

But you can do something about it: Support candidates (and elected officials) who want to break cycles of destructive behavior and attack root causes like poverty, racism, and sexism, rather than those who would only complain about teenage pregnancy after the fact. Volunteer for mentoring programs that work with young people in at-risk situations, especially girls.

Most important, listen to young people and try to communicate with them on their own wavelength and be ready to consider the validity of your own reactions and feelings about hot-button issues like teen pregnancy.

Let's channel our energy into making a positive difference for vulnerable young women and their families – in Gloucester and across the country.

Jeannette Pai-Espinosa is the president of The National Crittenton Foundation, which supports the empowerment of at-risk girls.

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