Teen pregnancies would decline if we would publicly shame teen and unwed mothers more, argued Jeb Bush in 1995. In his book Profiles in Character, Jeb Bush dedicated an entire chapter to the need for more shame, titled “The Restoration of Shame.”
In it, he writes:
One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. The parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus to be careful.
Bush is simultaneously advocating for the use of societal shame against some of our most vulnerable and marginalized citizens while ignoring the history and reality of teen and unwed pregnancy. He waxes poetic about the days when unwed pregnant girls and women were neither seen nor heard after either being quietly whisked away for nine months or subject to a dangerous back-alley abortion. He pines for a time when shame was enough to deter young women from becoming pregnant.
But what Bush very clearly does not understand is that shame hasn’t gone anywhere; in fact, it is a fundamental aspect of teen pregnancy prevention campaigns, both in 1995 and now.
Today, teen pregnancy prevention campaigns still actively shame teen mothers.
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled the city’s new teen pregnancy prevention campaign in 2013 (which has since been quietly cancelled under Mayor Bill de Blasio), it featured morose infants with quotes like “Honestly Mom…chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.” The Candie’s Foundation, founded by the head of Candie’s fashion brand Neil Cole, is one of the most egregious. It relies heavily on celebrity endorsements in order to spread their message of shame and stigma. One of its most flagrantly shaming phrases is, “You’re supposed to be changing the world, not changing diapers,” as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. Bristol Palin warns of the dire consequences of teen motherhood in a stark video PSA (while casually ignoring the financial reward she reaped for shaming her fellow young parents).
Is this not the kind of public shaming that Jeb Bush claimed was long since over?
In fact, shame is such a predominant narrative in teen pregnancy prevention campaigns that there is a movement to stop it. The #NoTeenShame movement, led by teen and young parents like Natasha Vianna, Gloria Malone, Consuela Greene, and others, strives to “improve strategic messaging campaigns and conversations to a non-stigmatizing and non-shaming approach.” Simply put, their goal is to change the narrative of shame and stigma to one of education and empowerment.
If teen and young parents are telling us that they are shamed and stigmatized, maybe we should believe them.
But while shame is still the modern-day basis of teen pregnancy prevention, it doesn’t actually act as any sort of real prevention tool. Studies show that it is access to affordable contraception that have helped reduce the teen birth and abortion rates. When teens have access to the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health care, they are better equipped to make the best decision for themselves, whatever that may be.
Poverty creates unwanted teen pregnancies, not the other way around. So why is the discourse around teen pregnancy prevention so often about how teen pregnancy leads to a life of poverty for mother and child?
Teen pregnancy prevention campaigns all too often begin from the assumption that if you become a teen mother, your life is over. Your future is ruined. You have failed and there is nothing you can do to change it. These messages become internalized so that teen mothers, an already marginalized group, simply begin to accept that they are powerless. They then become a very easy political target.
That’s because the use of shame isn’t really about preventing unwanted teen pregnancies, and Jeb Bush knew it. It’s about blaming teen mothers for broad, systemic problems, rather than the politicians who enact those policies.
Published in 1995, Bush’s Profiles in Character was published in the midst of a swirling, politically constructed crisis around teen pregnancy and neoliberal efforts to dismantle the welfare state. Politicians like Newt Gingrich decried welfare as an incentive program for teen girls, claiming that teen girls would get pregnant simply so that “the taxpayers will guarantee you cash, food stamps, and medical care, plus a host of other benefits.” In 1994, President Clinton offered Congress a welfare reform proposal with a specific provision to create a national teen pregnancy prevention campaign,. When the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was passed in 1996, it not only dismantled the guarantee to welfare assistance for single mothers, it also called for programs to prevent teen pregnancy as an essential element.
Teen mothers were made into political pariahs, a scourge on polite society, and all because neoliberal politicians wanted to end welfare. They knew, like Jeb Bush, that shame is a far more powerful police force than the government.
Lauren Rankin is a freelance writer, feminist activist, and board member of A is For, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing women’s reproductive rights. She has a Master of Arts in Women’s and Gender Studies from Rutgers University.