This week, news broke that a Michigan school district is barring two teens from displaying their pregnant bellies in their school yearbook. The school district’s superintendent explained that depicting images of teen pregnancy in the yearbook goes against the school’s mission of “promoting abstinence.” One of the pregnant teens said she “went to the bathroom and cried” upon hearing the news.
Aside from the ironic fact that teens who receive abstinence-only education are actually more likely to become pregnant than the students who receive accurate sexual health information about prevention methods, the situation in Michigan also illustrates the pervasive negativity that Americans associate with teenage pregnancies. That attitude ultimately creates a environment that punishes, stigmatizes, and shames young mothers — many of whom are subject to much larger structural issues that are out of their control, like the type of sex education they received in school or the level of poverty they were born into.
Unfortunately, the situation in Michigan is hardly the only example of this dynamic in play. Here are five other instances of teen moms being shamed instead of supported:
1. A North Carolina high schooler’s photo won’t appear in her yearbook because she posed with her newborn son. One teen mom in North Carolina can relate all too well to the pregnant students in Michigan. After posing for a photo with her baby son, she was told that the picture wouldn’t be allowed to appear in the yearbook this year. The school claimed that the image would “promote teen pregnancy” and told the student she had two days to submit a different photo without her son. She declined, saying, “If he wasn’t going to be in it with me, I didn’t want be in it at all.”
2. One Louisiana high school banned pregnant teens from attending classes on campus altogether. Last year, a charter school in Louisiana received significant backlash for its policy forbidding pregnant students from remaining on campus. According to the school handbook, pregnant students were required to either switch to another school or begin a home school program — and if the school “suspected” a girl of being pregnant, administrators could force her to take a pregnancy test to find out for sure. After the ACLU stepped in to file a formal discrimination complaint, the Louisiana Department of Education ordered the school to drop its policy.
3. A celebrity-studded national campaign tells teens that being a mother is incompatible with being successful. Public service campaigns that stigmatize young parents are all too common. Teens are often bombarded with negative messages intended to dissuade them from having a baby at a young age — but instead of focusing on effective information about tools to prevent pregnancy, like information about where to access affordable birth control or other family planning support, these ads simply focus on how teen mothers’ lives are ruined. Many of them also have the added effect of dismissing parenthood altogether. A recent campaign from the Candie’s Foundation depicts celebrity’s faces alongside these messages, including Carly Rae Jepson proclaiming that being a mother prevents women from achieving great things:
4. New York City advertisements tell teen moms that they will be poor and their boyfriends will leave them. New York City, which has taken huge steps to lower its rates of unintended teen pregnancies by expanding access to contraception, recently decided its efforts also needed to include an “edgy” ad campaign intended to illustrate “the real cost of teen pregnancy.” The posters in the campaign fall right in line with the typical scare tactics that attempt to frighten teens out of becoming pregnant, displaying children’s faces alongside dire statistics about why teen motherhood is destined for failure. Rather than addressing the deep-seated economic issues at play, this type of advertising chooses instead to simply blame teen mothers — and their children — for creating their own cycle of poverty:
5. An Oregon high schooler faked a pregnancy to experience the stigma firsthand, and even she was surprised at the negative reactions. High school senior Maria Miranda lives in an area that has a high rate of teen pregnancies, especially among Latina youth, and she wanted to investigate the types of stereotyping those young women experience. For six months, she pretended to be pregnant — and lost many friends in the process. Miranda asked four friends to participate in the social experiment and collect the gossip spreading about her. They reported that she was being called “irresponsible” or “stupid.” One of her teachers said, “Oh great, another child having a child.” In later interviews, Miranda said she had never learned more about judgment than she had during those six months.
Ultimately, since teens aren’t “supposed” to be getting pregnant, American society assumes that the ones who do are failures. Those “deviant” teens should never be celebrated; rather, they should be held up as a warning to dissuade other youth from following in their footsteps. But those messages are harmful for the millions of young parents who are living with the reality of caring for a child. Those youth need support, not stigmatization, as they transition into being parents. In fact, studies have shown that robust youth support programs are actually more effective at preventing unintended pregnancies than efforts to shame teens about their sexuality are.
Of course, the United States — which has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world — should take steps to ensure that youth have the education and the resources they need to decide when they’re ready to become parents. But that public health effort shouldn’t come at the expense of the millions of teenage parents who don’t deserve to be ostracized, especially when there are more effective policy solutions that could better address the root of this issue.