Past Event

When Does a Teen Pregnancy Get a Pass?

Teenage pregnancy was back in the news recently, but not in the usual way that teenage pregnancy gets characterized. When the pregnant teenager is the daughter of Alaska Govenor and U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the young mother-to-be gets excused for her decision to "choose life."

The overwhelming reaction to 17-year-old Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was that it is a private family matter that should be respected and kept out of the media. For decades, conservatives and social welfare activists have publicly decried teenage pregnancy, citing numerous ways in which it was harmful to society. In the 1960s, sociologist and U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan’s report on the Black Family blamed teenage pregnancy as one of the reasons the black family was "pathological" and "dysfunctional," and other social scientists called teen pregnancies unacceptable and a "serious problem."

Teen pregnancy rates have fallen in recent years, but the National Institutes of Health reported in July that for the first time since 1991 the numbers are going back up. "The report comes after a spate of high-profile teen pregnancies: that of 17-year-old TV star Jamie Lynn Spears, who recently gave birth to a daughter, as well as the pregnancies of numerous students at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts," CNN reported.

Last week, Chicago Public Radio reported on how a group of African-American teenage girls in Chicago chose to respond when they heard Republican leaders "extol the virtues of family values" regarding Bristol Palin’s pregnancy. The racial context in which teen pregnancy is viewed was not lost on these girls, all of whom have seen friends deal with the issue, the station reported.

As long as the teenagers in question aren’t poor or members of a racial minority, it seems like teenage pregnancy does not become cause for public alarm or outrage. But who can reasonably argue that a new explosion of teenage pregnancies would not complicate an already fragile social welfare system? What does general reaction to this high-profile teenage pregnancy say about current social values? What message does the conservative response to Bristol Palin’s pregnancy send to all sexually active teenagers about the use of contraceptives and safe sex? Is there a danger to not having a consistent, "one-size-fits-all" message on teenage pregnancy? Why are females, and not males, still the ones who must answer questions surrounding teen pregnancy?

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