May marks National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, an advocacy push to promote sexual health and address this country’s disproportionately high rate of unintended pregnancies among young people. But programs in this area typically walk a fine line. All too often, public awareness campaigns focus on blaming teen mothers for their choices and telling young women that having a baby will ruin their lives.
“May is definitely the month of getting it wrong, and it’s just so saturated with these ads and these messages,” Gloria Malone, a young mother in New York City who has helped spearhead the #NoTeenShame campaign to transform society’s approach to teen pregnancy, told ThinkProgress.
#NoTeenShame was formed last May, after a handful of young mothers banded together to push back on several offensive ad campaigns. For instance, celebrity-studded PSAs from the Candie’s Foundation told young women that they should be “changing the world, not changing diapers,” as if motherhood is incompatible with any other type of success. And in New York City, subways and bus shelters were plastered with problematic ads featuring crying children and ominous statistics, like “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.”
There can be real public health consequences to that approach. Negative messages about teen pregnancy ultimately make it more difficult for teens who become pregnant to seek out the support and resources they need — and could end up leading them to make unsafe choices, like resorting to illegal methods of ending a pregnancy.
“When we tell young people that their life is over if they become pregnant, we alienate young people facing an unintended pregnancy,” Renee Bracey Sherman, a writer with Echoing Ida, a Black Women’s writing collective of Strong Families, explained. “I know about this stigma firsthand. I became pregnant in my teens and was afraid to tell my parents because I didn’t want them to see me as a ‘bad person’ or another statistic.”
Malone, who had her daughter when she was 15, said that becoming pregnant at a young age was certainly an “isolating” experience. “It was mind boggling to see how many people thought my life was over, or didn’t associate with me anymore, simply because I was pregnant. Strangers had no problem stopping me on the street and telling me how much I had ruined my life and the life of my child — and, by extension, the economy,” she said.
And these type of messages don’t just affect the teenage girls who are currently pregnant. They also reach the young women and men who are already parenting, as well as their children. Once New York City’s ads went up, Malone said her daughter saw them and asked why she wasn’t going to graduate from high school.
“Stigmatizing ads can, and often do, have a reverse effect,” Malone pointed out. “Young mothers can feel like all the hard work they’re doing in vain because these ads say you can’t be anything anyway… We can’t forget that we’re talking about humans who have feelings, and emotions, and families.”
But it’s not impossible to get this right. For instance, this year, New York City’s health department is taking a slightly different approach to pregnancy prevention. Along with groups like Planned Parenthood, the Bronx District Public Health Office, and the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, the city is launching a program that focuses mainly on encouraging teens to use contraception. Instead of crying babies, the ads feature young women proclaiming that they use birth control:
The “I’m On It” campaign launched in the Bronx this week and will serve as a model for the rest of the boroughs in the city. It’s a good example of how to reach young people in a positive way, without telling teen parents they’re irresponsible or a drain on the economy.
It also fits into what we already know about what makes an effective public health campaign. Planned Parenthood, which has done extensive research on how to impart messages about safe sex to kids, hasn’t found much success with fear-based approaches that warn teens getting pregnant will destroy their lives. Just like ominous messages about why drugs will destroy their brains, teens tend to tune that out. Instead, the group typically works on rebranding safe sex as normal and even cool.
“It’s really important to associate positive emotions with the action that you’re trying to get people to take,” Leslie Kantor, the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, explained in an interview with ThinkProgress earlier this year. “You want to play on the idea that using birth control and planning for sex makes you smart, it makes you a good partner, it makes your relationship a healthy one. Those are the kind of things we want to tap on.”
And instead of blaming teen moms for society’s problems, a focus on birth control helps take a small step toward addressing some of the structural roots of unintended pregnancy, like economic inequality and a lack of access to health services. There are other policies that could advance these areas, too. For instance, most teens don’t receive formal sex health instruction until after they’ve already started having sex. Implementing federal standards for health classes could help change that.
“Overall, as a society, we need to realize there’s no need to mention young parents and their families when we’re talking about prevention,” Malone explained. “We could be talking about advancing comprehensive sex education. We could be talking about how poverty leads to teenage pregnancy.”
“We must send the message that support and resources is prevention — shaming is not,” Bracey Sherman added.