Harsh truths are powerful tools in teen pregnancy prevention

In Opinion
Courtesy of MCT
Courtesy of MCT

Teen pregnancy: it is a fear for many, an impossibility for those in denial and a reality for others. While there are always exceptions and extraordinary circumstances, the general consensus is that teen pregnancy is something that should be prevented.

This seems clear enough. Young people are aware that pregnancy is not an ideal circumstance, and that there are condoms, birth control and abstinence. So there we go—problem solved, right?


Statistics show that although teen pregnancy rates have considerably decreased over the last decade, around 34 percent of women become pregnant before the age of 20.  The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rate of all developed countries.

Problem not solved. Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education programs are taught in schools across the country, yet still we see this issue. Where is the disconnect here?

Education, both at school and at home, obviously plays a part in how teens handle sexual responsibility. But there must be something beyond that in order to resolve the issue of teen pregnancy. Some efforts have taken the issue out of the classroom, out of the home, and driven it into the streets.

New York City has devoted $400,000 to a teen pregnancy prevention campaign featuring street ads with harsh reality checks from spokes-babies for their hypothetical teen parents. The ads basically translate facts and statistics into personalized guilt trips in an effort to deter teens from becoming parents before graduating, getting a job and getting married.

Statistics about low marriage rates between young parents are paired with statements like, “Honestly mom … chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” coming from a pensive toddler.

A blonde baby girl warns her father, “Dad … you’ll be paying to support me for the next 20 years” in conjunction with a fact about New York child support laws.

The ads are on bus stops around the city and are partnered with the city’s Human Resources/Dept. of Social Services website, where there is more information and video messages from real young people who became parents as teenagers.

The “Cost of Teen Pregnancy” ads launched earlier this week have made waves with Planned Parenthood, who said that while they agree with the aim of the ads, the messages actually do more harm than good.

Haydee Morales, a spokeswoman for the non-profit whose headquarters are in New York, told CNN the campaign “creates stigma, hostility and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy and parenthood rather than offer alternative aspirations for young people.”

Planned Parenthood is pointing toward more education and access to contraception as alternatives to this type of campaign.

The controversy raises the question of whether or not confronting and essentially scaring young people with truths about teen pregnancy is an effective method of prevention. So far, studies about the effectiveness of abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexual education have been pretty much inconclusive.

Mayor Bloomberg and the city of New York decided to take things into their own hands. Maybe they drew a connection with the coincidence of the drop in teen pregnancy and the rise in popularity of shows like Teen Mom and 16 & Pregnant. The quality of these shows and their actual effect on teen pregnancy statistics could be debated into the next millennium.

What cannot be debated is that teenagers are more likely to be affected (for better or for worse) by watching a girl, who could easily be sitting next to them in homeroom, care for an infant, than they are by watching a teacher put a condom on a banana.

It is universal knowledge that teenagers care more about what their peers think of them than what adults think of them. A campaign like the one in New York is running with that knowledge and painting the city with it. Planned Parenthood’s suggestions, while completely valid, also lacks the creative energy necessary for real change to occur.

Should teens who have become parents be made to feel outcast and ashamed? No, of course not. But those who are at risk should absolutely be confronted with the reality that lies ahead of them. The posters and website offer real statistics and real stories from real teens who really became parents. Relatability is the key to this campaign.

And relatability might be the key to preventing teenagers from being sexually irresponsible and having to go through an unplanned pregnancy that will likely affect them for the rest of their lives.

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