Ever since we humans evolved, we have been reproducing. As society developed, diverse tribal customs grew up surrounding sex, reproduction and marriage, enforced by tribal laws. More complex societies enforced an age of consent through laws enforced by the state. We need laws to protect younger people from adult exploitation and enable them to explore their sexuality in a fun, natural way. However, what we don’t need is an arbitrary and uncertain designation of “teenage pregnancy” – which is mostly used by Western countries.
This category is wavering. In the UK, teen pregnancy or being a teenage mother usually refers to being underage (under 16). But in the USA the terms are used even for 19 year olds. In any case, categorising 13-19 year olds as a different class of family is arbitrary. It is arbitrary no matter how you define ‘teenage pregnancy’. You could include preteen pregnancy and have it as 12-19, or exclude those over the age of majority and it would be 12-17. Or exclude those over the age of consent, so only those 15 and under would be included. Whatever definition you use, the categorising is flawed: a 12 year old parent’s experience is very different from a 19 year old’s. In fact, the difference is much greater than the difference between a 19 year old and a 20 year old – yet, the latter would nit count as a “teen mum”. In most regions of the world the term is meaningless, especially in countries which do not stigmatise young families (e.g. the Scandinavian countries and Estonia) and countries with a lower average age of first marriage or first birth.
The concept of ‘teenage pregnancy’ is specific to our culture in which people have families later in life, choosing to prioritise their careers, independence and sex lives before having children.
The concept harms young families. By labelling these girls, boys and their families, stigma and shaming of young parents is promoted. Older families become the norm against which younger families are judged, and younger families are often ‘othered’ at best. At worst, young mothers are demonised as benefit cheating sluts and young fathers as runaway dads; neither are thought to be ambitious, still in education, or employed.
The media and politicians have to take responsibility for promoting ‘teenage pregnancy’ as a concept and also for portraying young families – especially mothers – as problem people to be helped or punished. Their family forms are often targeted for extinction as politicians publically admit to wanting to reduce or combat teenage pregnancy. This further stigmatises these families as a disease within society or vermin to be eradicated. Other family forms are not being eradicated by the government in the same way. It is likely that if the government announced a policy to combat and reduce the nuclear family or the same-sex family there would be extreme and sustained national outrage.
Although social scientists now know that the age of the mother at first birth has no effect on outcomes for either mother or child, the prejudice still survives. Even though ‘teenage pregnancy’ has been steadily falling since the 1970s – something nobody else seemed to realise until Nadine Dorries’ abstinence education bill in January, when the media suddenly and uncharacteristically rushed to print the truth.
Combatting teenage pregnancy denies teens the reproductive freedom and life choices granted to older citizens. Combatting unwanted pregnancy is key, and not all teenage pregnancies are unwanted, especially pregnancies to mid- and late- teens. Young families do not have to be stigmatised. In fact, in Estonia in the 2000s the birth rate was low and so what we would call ‘teenage pregnancy’ was encouraged and glorified. The government and media are choosing to ‘other’ young families, portray them negatively and expose them to stigma.