The Politics of Teen Pregnancy

If any evidence were needed to confirm the base nature of political debate in America, the increase in teen birth rates ­ the first in 14 years ­ reported by the National Center for Health Statistics on December 5, provided an opportunity. The Bush administration initially transformed this debate into a discussion of the intrinsic value of virginity; the vestiges of this cynicism continued to distort interpretation of the 3 per cent increase — in a rate that was already higher than any other Western nations. Far more interesting, however, are the real issues affecting young people’s perception of their opportunities in America.

All analysis of the recent rise in teen pregnancy references the proven failure of abstinence education, on which the Bush administration has already squandered more than $700 million, obediently supported by the Democrats. The fact that anyone bothered to do a study on the efficacy of preaching abstinence to teens is, in itself, pretty baffling. However, now that the experts have proven that unnatural, sexist, dogmatic jargon is hard-pressed to convince young people not to have sex, you’d think that more than just fringe groups would be stumping for real sex-education and universal access to abortion.

Instead, despite privately supporting age-appropriate sex-ed and abortion rights, most Americans have passively accepted the criminalization of abortion procedures, the proliferation of gag-rules, and the millions of dollars wasted on chatting about the values of chastity at home and abroad.

Societies should have zero interest in safeguarding virginity. The choice to have consensual sex is a private matter for families to address. Because early sexual experiences can be linked to various forms of coercion, particularly for women, encouragement of open exploration of sexual independence is certainly more productive than reinforcing traditional sexual taboos. Unsafe, exploitative, or coercive sexual scenarios lead to complex emotional conseqences. So, in keeping with an appropriate interest in the health and productivity of its members societies can most certainly justify comprehensive sex-education that informs young people of their rights and safety options.

To be sure, the U.S. is affected by the cyclical nature of teenage pregnancy and its associated pitfalls for mothers and children. While there are many fantastic young moms and loving extended families that support young parents, teen pregnancy creates strain on resources and people, and is linked to lower rates of education, and higher rates of poverty and imprisonment. The recent rise in teen birth rates has garnered publicity because it feels, to experts and laypeople, neither coincidental, nor negligible.

While replacing sex-ed with abstinence-ed is moronic, it doesn’t entirely explain the spike. If Bush were entirely to blame, then the U.S. would not have been the historical world record holder. Contradicting Hilary Clinton’s claim in the New York Times that sex-education lowered teen birth rates in the 1990’s, Columbia’s Dr. John S. Santelli linked the fall in teen pregnancy under Clinton to the sobering side-effects of the AIDS epidemic. Indeed, fear is a productive means of social control, but this explanation, again, is not compelling enough to explain the behavior of teenagers.

AIDS ushered in an unprecedented era of honest discussion of sex. It’s no coincidence that this period of openness saw a dramatic cultural shift in attitudes toward sexuality, as evidenced by pop culture trends and empirical studies of rape, childhood sexual exploitation, and teen sexuality. At the culmination of this era, marked by films like “Boys Don’t Cry”, mainstream AIDS awareness events sponsored by corporations, and fashionable androgyny, Americans elected George W. Bush president.

Expanding the discussion beyond sex

People choose to reproduce or not to reproduce because of the concrete opportunities their societies offer them. Both East and West Germany experienced a baby boom in the 1960s, but birth rates in the West peaked in 1965, while the DDR kept growing. Divorce rates were 3 times higher than in the West, and many children were born to women 19 years old and younger. Although birth control was not widely available, East German women didn’t lack access to abortion; its abortion rates topped West Germany’s. However, opportunities for social and economic advancement weren’t plentiful, and the State allocated apartments for families. In a society characterized by scarcity, having kids presented young couples with an opportunity: the opportunity to move out of their parents’ place.

Compared to our European counterparts, we’re a country of extremes, from our size, to our imprisonment rates, to abortion rates, to our inequalities. The comparative harshness of our justice system, the paltriness of any kind of social safety net, and the enormity of our wealth gap should feature heavily in our understanding of the disproportionately high teen pregnancy and birth rates between the U.S. and Western Europe.

Inequality is especially relevant in this regard. Indeed, if hope, in America, is often characterized by the idea of equality and opportunities for economic mobility, recent studies have provided some rude awakenings. In March of 2007, the New York Times reported on another phenomenon occurring roughly contemporaneously with the rise of teen birth rates:

“Income inequality grew significantly in 2005, with the top 1 percent of Americans – those with incomes that year of more than $348,000 – receiving their largest share of national income since 1928 … “

In 1928, the top 1 per cent owned 23.94 per cent of the country’s wealth. Then for about 50 years, the wealth concentration got steadily more equitable. By 1976, the top 1 per cent owned a mere 8.86 per cent. In the 29 years that followed, the rift, grew again, landing the top 1 per cent with 21.93 per cent. The rich, pretty suddenly, got richer.

In 2005, studies substantiated that total income in the U.S. rose, but for the bottom 90 per cent, it dropped. The richest 1 per cent of Americans owned more than the bottom 90 per cent. Since that report, the wealth gap has continued to widen.

Substantiating another disappointing trend, Newsweek reported a 6 per cent increase in costs for one year of college in 2006. The College Board released figures indicating that “private four-year [colleges cost] $23,712 and public four-year, $6,185.”

The AFL-CIO reported on the job loss and joblessness crisis during the Bush administration: “The nation has lost jobs in 25 of the 31 months that President Bush has been in office, making for the worst jobs record at this point in a presidency of any administration since Herbert Hoover.”

After exploring economic mobility in the U.S., the Brookings Institute published findings in November showing that “middle class people have equal likelihood of ending up in any quintile,” and “only one third [of Americans] are upwardly mobile.”

Additionally, the study’s author reports: “Startlingly, almost half (45 percent) of black children whose parents were solidly middle class end up falling to the bottom of the income distribution, compared to only 16 percent of white children.”

Not startlingly, although birth rates increased for whites, Hispanics and Native Americans, the recent increase in teenage birth rates are most dire for black teenagers.

People operate, rationally and emotionally, in response to society’s particular arrangement of incentives. When we believe in our opportunities, we safeguard our futures. Conversely, we behave self-destructively when we have no hope. For many teenagers in America, whose experiences in their communities reflect this spate of depressing statistics, the options aren’t heartening.

In a society where opportunities are scarce and life is getting harder, getting pregnant puts a positive spin on a vote of no-confidence.

The NCHS’ report will likely encourage the reintroduction of real sex-education, but it’s doubtful that this constructive adjustment will be enough to offset the emotional and logistical burdens imposed by a relatively new set of economic inequalities. Where politicians on both sides have it wrong is in believing that hope is derived from rhetoric rather than reality. People, even teenagers, can’t be tricked into believing that life in America is fair. Talking about sex is good inasmuch as it helps to avert disease transmission and coercion, but talking about hope, equality, fairness and opportunity, without taking steps to redistribute wealth on a large scale, is cheap.

R.F. Blader can be reached at