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Reframing Teen Pregnancy

May 1 was the 12th annual National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

During this time, we are being asked to remember that teenagers are too immature, poor, uneducated or unstable to carry healthy pregnancies or raise children with positive outcomes.

At the same time, we may not realize that researchers have long questioned the statistics that suggest that teenage pregnancy is the cause of societal ills, frequently pointing out that the so-called consequences of teenage pregnancy are actually the consequences of living in poverty.

In addition, we may fail to see that negative depictions of teenage pregnancy often stigmatize pregnant and mothering young women.

As a rhetorician and woman who had her first child at the age of 17, I study the power of images and words to shape what we know and do about teenage pregnancy and how this affects young mothers. Because of the nature of my research, I was invited to be a funded scholar with the Crossroads Collaborative, a research project funded through the Ford Foundation.

I work with academics at the UA, youth-serving organizations in Tucson, and local youth to conduct action-oriented research on issues of youth, sexuality, health and rights in Arizona.

Recently, I collaborated with Sally Stevens, the executive director of the Southwest Institute for Research on Women, SIROW, on the My Pregnancy Story Project (executed in PDF format) to learn more about how to better support young mothers in our community. We asked 27 young women how they feel about being pregnant, how much family and social support they receive, how they feel about representations of teen pregnancy in the media, and how they perceive other people’s reactions to their pregnancy.

Contrary to messages you might hear on the National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, we found that pregnant and mothering young women in our community are doing difficult, good work to care for themselves and their children as they balance many obligations.

However, we also learned that:

  • We need to challenge stereotypes and misinformation about teenage pregnancy and young parenthood that create a hostile environment for young mothers in which strangers, peers, and even teachers often say insulting things. For example, one young mother was told by a boy that she “shoulda wore a condom" while she strolled her son to the campus daycare; another participant was humiliated by a teacher who used her as an example of why students need to prevent teen pregnancy; others were approached in grocery stores by people they did not know who said something about their pregnancy like, “Oh! You are too young to be having a child!”
  • We need to challenge dual gender standards for sexuality and reproduction. Participants lamented “it is not on the guy!” They noted that fathers of teen pregnancies often escape judgment for their actions or get congratulated if they seem to stick around to raise the child. 
  • Finally, we need to promote respect of the hard work young mothers do and recognition of the sources of support that they have developed to raise their children. One participant explained, “I think they should – since we are continuing with school, and we’re trying our hardest to give our kids a good life and a good future – they should give credit to the ones that are still trying to, you know, do what they can and get their education and stuff like that. Instead of just jump and judge all of them in general.”

In these moments when the public rallies to prevent teen pregnancies, it is always important to remember how this rhetoric affects the lives of young parents.

Jenna Vinson, is a doctoral candidate and a graduate associate in teaching in the Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English program at the UA graduating in May 2013. Vinson also is a Crossroads Collaborative Scholar. Vinson's dissertation “Teenage Mothers as Rhetors and Rhetoric: An Analysis of Embodied Exigence and Constrained Agency” investigated how visual and verbal rhetoric about teenage pregnancy constructs and constrains experiences for young mothers. Contact: Jenna Vinson at jennav@email.arizona.edu.