Reality Check: Shaming Isn’t What Reduced Teen Pregnancy Rates

While our two major political parties remain divided on nearly every political issue, there is no partisan divide on teen pregnancy. Democrats and Republicans aren’t sparring over whether teen pregnancy is bad, nor are they locking horns about the need to prevent it. In fact, it was Democratic President Bill Clinton who called teen childbearing “our most serious social problem” in his 1995 State of the Union address. But this framework of social hysteria, that teen pregnancy is an out-of-control crisis, simply isn’t true. Not by a long shot.

According to a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute, U.S. teen pregnancy has reached “historic lows.” The study shows that teen pregnancy rates have been steadily declining since their peak in 1990 and are now at lower levels than they were before the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide. The study also notes that teen pregnancy rates have declined in all 50 states and in every single racial and ethnic group in the U.S.

“Teens, for the first time in history, are getting the resources and support and access to the tools they actually need to prevent pregnancy if that’s what they want to do,” said Natasha Vianna, an advocate for young families and one of the founders of the #NoTeenShame campaign.

As this study demonstrates, we have long since turned a corner on the issue of teen pregnancy, and any claim that there is an teen pregnancy epidemic is simply not corroborated by the evidence. It forces the question: If teen pregnancy is not an epidemic social crisis in the U.S., why are we still talking about it like it is?

We are now nearly halfway through Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, and campaigns like the Candie’s Foundation and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy are dedicating this month to spreading hyperbolic and often shaming messages about the cost of teen pregnancy. This month, these campaigns have been bombarding social media with the hashtag #NoTeenPreg, but offering little in the way of actual information that could help prevent unwanted teen pregnancies. Phrases like the Candie’s Foundation’s “You’re supposed to be changing the world … not changing diapers” along with celebrity snapshots frame teen mothers as a worthless waste, rather than women who need support and compassion.

Candie’s Foundation public service announcement

The Candie’s Foundation, a teen pregnancy prevention campaign that features celebrity endorsements, often frames teen pregnancy as a dire, out-of-control crisis. One of their video PSAs features harrowing music and a ticking clock sound effect on top of graphics that hysterically cite in bold letters “85 TEENS GET PREGNANT EACH HOUR … 2,000 GIRLS A DAY … ALMOST 750,000 GIRLS A YEAR.” The Candie’s Foundation blends good, old-fashioned sex shaming with a sense of impending doom to send the message that teen pregnancy is our generation’s black plague, sweeping across the nation and impregnating girls in its wake.

While this sounds silly, so is their PSA. In fact, so is their entire campaign. On their entire website, featuring videos with Bristol Palin and even a “crying baby app,” they don’t have a single page dedicated to information about birth control, condoms, sexual education, or abortion care. That’s because the Candie’s Foundation isn’t a campaign geared towards genuinely preventing unwanted teen pregnancies; it’s a campaign geared towards shaming teen mothers and framing sex as inherently sinful. Unfortunately, this is par for the course for many teen pregnancy prevention campaigns.

The ways in which these campaigns shame and blame teen mothers have been noted by teen and young parenting advocates like those behind the #NoTeenShame campaign. These activists behind this campaign have been demanding for over a year that teen pregnancy prevention campaigns like the Candie’s Foundation abandon their shaming rhetoric and instead, focus on prevention through empowerment and access to information.

If you are viewing teen pregnancy through the lens of these campaigns, you are likely to come away thinking that the rates of teen pregnancy and teen childbearing are not only sky high, but rapidly increasing day-by-day. That’s why the Guttmacher Institute’s new study is so revelatory — it throws cold water on the hysteria drummed up by organizations like the Candie’s Foundation with genuine facts.

What’s more, it isn’t shame that’s driving the teen pregnancy rate down. According to Kathryn Kost, lead author of the study, it’s “efforts to ensure teens can access the information and contraceptive services they need to prevent unwanted pregnancies.”

This all comes as no surprise to Natasha Vianna. “Why is there this illusion that teen mom shaming is what has driven the teen pregnancy rate to decline?” Vianna asked. “It really doesn’t make any sense when the reality is that young people deserve the credit. It’s the young people who are making these choice and are doing what they feel is right for them.”

In light of this study and in response to the fearless teen and young parenting advocates who have combated shame-and-blame rhetoric in teen pregnancy prevention campaigns for years, it is well past time that we stop perpetuating the myth that teen pregnancy is a grave epidemic that needs to be stemmed. We must stop framing teen mothers as irresponsible, shameful failures and instead, offer them systemic support and resources. Let’s refocus our campaigns to center information on the full gamut of sexual and reproductive healthcare, and empower teens to celebrate healthy, safe sexual lives rather than cower in shame. Everyone has the rights to reproductive healthcare, bodily autonomy, and to self-determination, and that includes teenagers.

“Teen moms are not saying, ‘Everyone must go out and have babies at 17,’” explained Vianna. “What we’re saying is that everybody has the right to the information that they need and the right to make the best decisions for themselves.

Lauren Rankin is a freelance writer, featured at publications like Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, Salon, and others. She is a board member of the New Jersey Abortion Access Fund and a recent graduate of the Master of Arts program in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. Follow her on twitter at @laurenarankin.