I have taught English in New Haven on the high school level for twelve years and during that time I have witnessed many teenage girls becoming pregnant with disastrous results - they leave school altogether; they miss an entire year due to the pregnancy, thus graduating a year later; receive low grades or fail due to excessive absences related to the health of their child or their failure to complete homework assignments because they are too tired after seeing to their child’s needs; or the teenager experiences repeated childbearing. Two young ladies in my eleventh grade English classes had their second child this year.
The prevention of teenage pregnancy does not fall within the scope of my responsibilities as an English teacher, but as I view it, the situation is so critical that whatever one can do to raise the consciousness of teenagers to the grave mistake they are making would be beneficial. If through involvement in this curriculum unit just one teenager delays the onset of pregnancy until marriage, my efforts will have been highly successful.
Adolescent pregnancy is widely viewed in our society as a serious problem. More than one million teenage girls in the United States become pregnant each year, just over 400,000 teenagers get abortions, and nearly 470,000 give birth. For the most part these births are to unmarried mothers, nearly half of whom have not yet reached their eighteenth birthday.
Since 1970 adolescent pregnancy and childbearing have remained higher in the United States than in the majority of other developed countries in the world. Girls in the United States under age fifteen are at least five times more likely to give birth than their foreign counterparts (Hayes, 1).
An article in Newsweek magazine pointed out that there has been a steep rise in out-of-wedlock births since the 1960’s among women aged 15-34. In the years 1960-64, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births for whites was 9% and 42% for blacks. In years 1985-1989, it was 22% for whites and 70% for blacks
The prospects for a healthy and productive life are greatly reduced for teenage parents and their children. Young mothers who, for varied reasons, lack adequate nutrition and appropriate prenatal care, are at a high risk for pregnancy complications; they are more likely to experience a repeat pregnancy while still in the teens. The infants of teenage mothers also face greater developmental and health risks.
Teenage families with children are usually fatherless, and most are poor. Teenage marriages, when they occur, are highly unstable. In addition, teenage parents, both male and female, suffer the negative impact that early parenting has on their education and career opportunities. Chronic unemployment and inadequate income is usually the norm for teenage parents. Because these young people often do poorly in the workplace, they and their children are highly likely to become dependent on public assistance and to remain dependent longer than those who delay childbearing until their twenties (Hayes, 1-2).
The aforementioned facts are disturbing; because one would think that in an “enlightened age” such as ours with contraceptives, sex education, and the availability of legal abortion, young people would not permit their lives to be in such a precarious situation. The question then arises, why? Why do young people who are hardly more than children themselves become parents?
The following list of reasons are based upon my personal observations obtained through twelve years of teaching experience with adolescents, fourteen through eighteen-years-old, in the New Haven Public School system.
Many teens become pregnant as a result of peer pressure. Everyone seems to be doing it, and having a baby seems to be the norm. If you do not have a child you appear to be missing out on an important experience in life. If a girl’s sister or close friend has a child, it usually follows that the young lady will follow their example.
There is also another, sometimes greater, pressure on girls and that is from their boyfriends, who encourage them to become sexually active as a way to prove their commitment to a relationship. The girl, desiring to be popular and accepted by the boy, yields to the pressure and becomes pregnant.
As incredible as it seems, many of today’s teens become pregnant through sexual ignorance. Their parents find it impossible, through lack of time or embarrassment, to impart correct information about sex to their children. Many school systems do not have adequate sex education programs as part of their curriculum and those who do have teachers who are ill-prepared to teach the subject. Very often this task is relegated to teachers of physical education, home economics, and science. Sex education should start in the primary grades and continue throughout high school. If young people do not have the right information they operate according to sexual myths such as:
¥ You can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.
¥ You won’t get pregnant if your partner interrupts the sex act before he comes to a climax.
The media in this country glorifies sex and irresponsible behavior. Music videos show nothing but lewd, suggestive dance movements. The song lyrics suggest that women are low creatures whose sole purpose in life is to gratify a man’s sexual desires. Movies, soap operas, and sitcoms hardly ever show a married couple having a wholesome family relationship. Instead, single people are portrayed in bed-hopping situations, involved in adulterous affairs, and having children out of wedlock. Last season, even Murphy Brown had a baby without being married. People on television are usually looked up to as role-models. If your favorite star or television character does it, then it must be all right.
Finally, a reason why many teenagers become untimely parents is because many come from homes where there is a perceived lack of love. Many of these homes are headed by one parent, usually the mother, who is either working or “doing her own thing.” The teen, feeling unloved and wanting someone on whom to lavish the love they never received, makes the decision to get pregnant. They want the joy of having their very own baby to hold, love and do things for.
The preceding opinions on the causes of teenage pregnancy were personal; the following views are taken from other sources.
The United States National Research Council says that teenagers become parents due to a lack of individual responsibility, maturity, knowledge, and values. Teenage parenthood results from the problems associated with poverty, including limited education and employment opportunities and the likelihood of growing up in a fatherless family (Hayes, 2).
A Newsweek poll of African Americans asked the question, “How important are the following reasons young, unmarried black people today are having children?”
They don’t understand sex or birth control.
They won’t use birth control or have an abortion for personal or religious reasons.
They want something of their own.
They want to prove they are adults.
They are following the examples of older people they know.(Newsweek, 1993, p. 29).
A study by D.L. Rhode lists several causes for teenage pregnancy.
Few if any societies exhibit a more perverse combination of permissiveness and prudishness in their treatment of sexual issues. A majority of Americans no longer view premarital intercourse as wrong, and the media bombards teens with scenes of sexual involvement and innuendo. Sex is often presented as a goal in and of itself, with little discussion of its risks or of responsible contraceptive behavior. Female adolescents remain subject to double standards that make spontaneous intercourse seem acceptable but suggest that adequate preparation is evidence of promiscuity. Conventional norms present casual sex as unacceptable but declare teenagers too young for serious relationships. On major television networks, sex sells everything automobiles to laundry detergent but advertisements for birth control remain almost taboo. Our cultural imagery links masculinity with sexual prowess and femininity with sexual attractiveness. As a result, teenagers become so confused by the ambivalence of American society and the mixed messages they receive from everywhere that they do not know what to do, so they do what seems to them natural and right. The result is an unplanned; unwanted pregnancy (Rhode, 316).
Finally many teenagers become pregnant because of limited available choices. For minority, poor, and rural youth, becoming a teen parent is often an acceptable adult choice to the teen’s community and family. In some communities teenage motherhood is accepted as both normal and traditional. For example, since the early twentieth century it has been the pattern for almost 40 percent of black women in the United States to become mothers before the age of twenty (Pearce, 48-49).
After reviewing the alarming statistics related to teenage pregnancy and the reasons why teens become premature parents we will now turn our attention to what is being done to prevent teenage pregnancy. What successful teenage prevention programs are in operation? What makes them work?
Girls Incorporated, formerly the Girls Clubs of America, began a major project in 1985 to help young women in avoiding pregnancy. The program involved 750 girls and young women ages 12 to 17, it consisted of four components, and it lasted for three years.
The program and its results are as follows:
¥ Growing Together - a series of parent-daughter workshops for younger teens designed to increase positive communication about sexual information and values, decreasing adolescent pregnancy by delaying the onset of sexual intercourse.
Findings: Girls who participated in the workshops were less than half as likely as nonparticipants to have sexual intercourse for the first time.
¥ Will Power/Won’t Power - an assertiveness training program for younger teens designed to help them say and mean “No” while remaining popular with peers of both sexes.
Findings: The girls who participated in nearly the entire program of Will Power/Won’t Power were the least likely to have sexual intercourse.
¥ Taking Care of Business - a structured program designed to increase the older teens’ motivation and skills to avoid pregnancy through educational and career planning, goal-setting, communication skills and responsible decision-making about sexual behavior and contraception.
Findings: The young women who participated in nearly the entire program of Taking Care of Business were about half as likely as non-participants to have sex without birth control. Consistent participants were one-third as likely as the short-term participants to become pregnant.
¥ Health Bridge - a delivery system that links education at Girls Incorporated centers with community-based health (including reproductive health) services, addressing the psychological and logistical barriers many young people offer as reasons for not practicing effective contraception when they first start having intercourse.
Findings: Those young women who participated in Health Bridge reported having sex without birth control one-third as often as non-participants. Health Bridge participants also were less than half as likely to become pregnant as nonparticipants (Truth, Trust and Technology v-vi).
A recent trend has been spearheaded by teenagers themselves. Southern Baptist youth pledged to abstain from sex until marriage. At the 137th annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention there was a display of 100,000 cards pledging chastity. The cards read, “to God, myself, my family, those I date, my future mate and my future children, I pledge to be sexually pure until the day I enter a covenant relationship” (New Haven Register, C5).
These teenagers, in an effort to control their sexual activity before marriage, have connected this issue with religious beliefs. They want to set new standards for their generation and not follow those set by their parents - the baby boomers - whose sexual freedom opened the door to so much of today’s sexually irresponsible, promiscuous behavior.
The Washington Post reported a decline in teenage pregnancies in Maryland after a four-year statewide campaign was conducted to lower the burgeoning teen birthrates. The improvement was attributed to several state initiatives, which included an intense media drive to try to encourage teenagers to postpone having sex. For example, some of the slogans read: “Talk your baby out of having one.” “Silence breeds babies,” and “It’s amazing how many guys disappear when one of these shows up.” The latter slogan shows a picture of a baby. The state also opened three family planning clinics in communities that had particularly high rates of teenage pregnancy
(The Washington Post
Successful teenage prevention programs share some common characteristics:
¥ The involvement of teenagers, parents, and community leaders in planning and ongoing support for these programs appears to be important for any successful program.
¥ Many times as an outgrowth of parent participation, parents request activities that are designed to meet their own needs for information and to improve their skills in communicating with their children.
¥ The curriculum content of successful programs approaches the topic of sex education broadly in the context of human growth, development, and relationships. They usually include discussions and activities that emphasize the examination of values and responsible decision making in the area of sexual behavior and developing communication skills. Most also include information about contraception.
¥ Training teachers is probably the single most crucial aspect of achieving success in any sex education program. It is the quality of the teacher that often creates the greatest parental concern about school-based programs, and, among the teachers themselves, there is doubt about their ability to teach sex and family life education (Ooms, 235-236).
In conclusion research reveals that teenage girls in the United States under the age of fifteen are more likely to give birth than their counterparts who live in foreign industrialized countries such as Canada, England, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Early parenthood has a negative impact on the prospects for a healthy and productive life. Young mothers are at a high risk for pregnancy complications and their infants face greater developmental and health risks. Teenage parents suffer the negative effects that early parenthood have on their education and career opportunities.
The question then arises, why do young people who are hardly more than children themselves become parents? The reasons are varied. Many teens become pregnant as a result of peer pressure, pressure from boyfriends to prove their love, and the media does not help the situation as it bombards teens with scenes of sexual involvement and innuendo. Still other teenagers become pregnant because in their particular community and family becoming a teen parent is the acceptable, adult choice to make.
Now we turn to the issue of what is being done to prevent teenage pregnancy. In Maryland teenage pregnancy dropped due to the involvement of the state. The state of Maryland initiated an intense media blitz aimed at persuading teenagers to postpone having sex. The state also created three family planning clinics for teenagers in communities where the teen pregnancy rates were particularly high. Southern Baptist youth initiated a “True Love Waits” campaign in which they vowed to abstain from sex until marriage. Girls Incorporated, formerly the Girls Clubs of America, conducted a highly successful project to help young women in avoiding pregnancy. The results of the program were that participants were able to delay the onset of sexual intercourse, and those who did have sex were more likely to use birth control, therefore, participants were less than half as likely to become pregnant as nonparticipants.
There have been some inroads made into the problem of adolescent pregnancy through various programs. The answer to this problem seems to lie in the development of more viable prevention programs. Therefore, the state, its agencies, and community agencies have a formidable task set before them, that of developing more programs that discourage teenagers from having sex and that promote birth control among those who are sexually active.