Here's another part of my article (still in draft!) on minors' consent to abortion and adoption. Here, I''m trying to set the background which sets the attitudes that explain our different treatment of these issues. I'm slapping it up here in two posts, since it's kind of a long section -- first, how we've defined the problem of teen pregnancy through the years, and second, how we've framed the solution in response to that problem.
A. The Problem
We hear frequently about the “problem” of teen pregnancy. Most view teen pregnancy in a negative light, although there is, perhaps, less agreement on what is problematic about teen pregnancy. Is the problem one of early sexuality? Early child-bearing? At certain points in our history, rates of early childbearing, and consequently early sexuality, were substantially higher than today’s rates. In the 1950s, for example, the teen birth rate was 97 per thousand, while in 2010, the teen birth rate was only 31.4 per thousand. Of course, in the 1950s, almost all teenage mothers were married, at least by the time their babies were born. That is not the case today. So is the problem one of “unwed” pregnancy, representing the new immorality of premarital sex or the difficulty of single child-rearing? As to sex outside of marriage, there is nothing “new” about that. Even during the time of the Puritans, whose very name conjures up visions of “prudish, ascetic, and antisexual,” premarital sex existed. In 17th century America, one in three brides in the Chesapeake Bay colony was pregnant when married, as was one in ten in Massachusetts. Still, unwed births remained low during this time, at 1-3%. So during this era, the solution for an unwed pregnancy was typically marriage, thus avoiding single child-rearing for the most part. Today, the connection between unwed pregnancy and single child-rearing is less than many assume. Most single child-rearing occurs because of previously-married partners who are not sharing child-rearing responsibilities, not because of children born to unmarried parents. Even children born to unmarried parents today are likely to be raised by both parents, in a stable relationship. And, in the ‘90s, at the height of the teen pregnancy “epidemic,” one in three pregnant teens was actually married.
Through the period of increased urbanization and industrialization of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the incidence of unwed pregnancy waxed and waned. At its highest point, an estimated 30% of brides were pregnant at the time of marriage. At its lowest point in the mid-nineteenth century, the rate of premarital pregnancy declined to 10%, fueled by religious revival and moral reform movements. Again, a hastily-arranged marriage was the solution for premarital sex that resulted in a pregnancy. The primary “problem” of unwed pregnancy at this time was one of morality – a woman was stigmatized by a non-marital pregnancy because of its proof of non-marital sex.
The rates of teen and unwed pregnancy increased throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, peaked in 1957, and has been generally declining since then. This fact is surprising to many because of the rhetoric, starting in the 1970s, about an “epidemic” of teen pregnancy. One scholar argues persuasively that the “epidemic” of adolescent pregnancy in the 1970s was a myth, unmoored from any historical context that would have identified adolescent pregnancy as part of an ongoing historical trend rather than a modern-day crisis. Some demographic shifts at this time did, however, show marked changes in teen pregnancy. First, in terms of numbers, though teen pregnancy rates declined, the number of pregnant teens did not decline because of the increased number of teenagers of the baby boom era becoming fertile. Second, in terms of age, teens were becoming pregnant at younger ages than in years past. The birth rate of women 18 to 19 years old declined by one-third from 1966 to 1977, while birth rate for girls 10 to 14 increased by one-third. And during this time period, because of delayed marriage, the rate of unmarried births among teenagers increased dramatically.
At this time, the “problem” of teen pregnancy tended to be seen as the increased burden of teen childbearing to society, especially when taken together with expansions of government programs for poor families. In 1975, for example, the federal government disbursed $4.65 billion in Aid to Families with Dependent Children to households of mothers who were teens at the time of their first births. Unlike earlier periods where marriage solved the economic problem of supporting the progeny of teens, marriage of this age group was in decline. In addition, there was a substantial decline in unmarried mothers placing children for adoption. While at least half of unmarried mothers placed their children for adoption in the 1950s, in the 1970s, 90% of unmarried mothers chose to parent their children.
The 1980s and 1990s brought more talk of an epidemic of teen pregnancy. Birth rates among teens did increase during these decades, but made marked declines in the new century. As the number of teenagers raising children – as opposed to placing them for adoption – increased, the “problem” of teen pregnancy became identified as the consequences of teen pregnancy and childrearing on mothers and children. The litany is familiar: minor mothers complete on average fewer years of school, are less likely to graduate high school, and are less likely to go on to college. Minor mothers have more children in their lifetime than do mothers who delay first pregnancy to adulthood, and have those children at closer intervals. Fewer educational attainments and larger families mean that “adolescent mothers are less likely to find stable and remunerative employment than their peers who delay childbearing.” Teen mothers are disproportionately poor and dependent on social welfare programs. Children raised by single teen mothers are likely to be raised in poverty, engage in drug use and other delinquent behavior, perform poorly in school, and repeat the cycle by becoming adolescent parents themselves.
It is less certain today that these problems are related to teenage childbearing, rather than the underlying poverty that is a risk factor for teenage pregnancy. More recent studies reveal a more nuanced picture of teen childbearing a causative of these problems. “A few pioneering studies have called into question the methodological error of assuming that teens who became mothers would have had the same life trajectories as teens who did not, had they delayed pregnancy.” For example, when researchers compared similarly situated girls who parented to girls who experienced miscarriages, they found that many of the negative consequences of teen childbearing were less than expected and relatively short-lived:
By the time a teen mother reaches her late twenties, she appears to have only slightly more children, is only slightly more likely to be a single mother, and has no lower levels of educational attainment than if she had delayed her childbearing to adulthood. In fact, by this age teen mothers appear to be better off in some aspects of their lives. Teenage childbearing appears to raise levels of labor supply, accumulated work experience and labor market earnings and appears to reduce the chances of living in poverty and participating in the associated social welfare programs.
As further support for findings that teen pregnancy does not cause poverty or other social ills, but instead arises in situations where poverty already exists, one study found in following teen mothers into their 30s, that mothers with childhood advantages fared better over time than impoverished mothers. In other words, teens who were poor when they became pregnant remained poor – as did poor teens who miscarried – and less poor pregnant teens remained less poor. This research calls into question long-held assumptions about teen parenting creating a negative life trajectory for teens.
Other studies suggest some positive consequences of pregnancy and parenting for teen mothers. In a study focusing on inner city youth, pregnancy and childbearing led to a “heightened sense of purpose connected with increased health and safety-conscious behaviors.” Teen mothers report that motherhood “provided them with a priority in life, together with a determination to achieve things for both themselves and their children.” One study reveals that girls who parent their children have no different juvenile delinquency rates than never-pregnant girls, and that girls who have abortions or place their children for adoption have substantially higher rates of juvenile delinquency than those who parent. A number of legal and societal changes have also ameliorated some of the negative effects of teen pregnancy. For example, since 1972, it is illegal for public schools to discriminate on the basis of pregnancy, which allows many pregnant girls to continue their education.
As society struggled with identifying what is problematic about the problem of teen pregnancy, shifting from concerns about immorality, impropriety of single parenthood, financial costs of supporting single mothers, and the negative societal consequences of teen pregnancy, unwed pregnancy, teen childbearing and teen childrearing, it also struggled with identifying solutions for the problem.