In the public health/health education community, teen pregnancy and teen parenthood has long been an important topic to address. We are proud of the statistics on the efficacy of comprehensive sex education and long acting reversible contraception in addition to teens utilizing over the counter emergency contraception to reduce teen pregnancy rates. Thankfully teen pregnancy statistics have dropped in the United States (17.4 live births per 1,000 women-CDC, 2018). It is undeniable that we have made great strides in preventing unintended teen pregnancies. However, one issue that remains unaddressed is the social stigma of teens that DO get pregnant.
The stigma surrounding teens who become pregnant is that they are/become “unmotivated, irresponsible, and incompetent parents” (SmithBattle, 2013). They are often considered more sexually active or having had more sexual partners than their peers (neither of which have been proven) and viewed by some as a moral failing or an issue with society. This stigma does not just occur in the classroom among their peers but also potentially when seeking pre-natal & pediatric care for themselves and their child(ren) among medical professionals. Furthermore, when this stigma is coupled with identifying factors such as race, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation it can lead to serious health inequity for these teens.
What are the effects of this stigma on these teens? Quite simply, stress and social isolation. Stress can have negative effects on the body which in turn affect the health of the pregnant person and their pregnancy. Additionally, these teens may be less likely to seek help from others believing that they may be prejudged, potentially increasing risks for themselves and the fetus. How do we help remove stigmas in our society? Education and awareness.
While there is not much research on the subject of stigma surrounding teen pregnancy specifically, there are tips that can be taken from existing research on stigma within other areas of public health (mental health, drug use/addiction, HIV status, and sexual orientation) that can be used. Additionally, teen parents forums provide an avenue for these young people to share their stories, and more importantly, show that these teens and their goals, hopes and dreams are not much different than their peers. The more understanding and perspective we can give the community, the easier it will be to break down the preconceived notions that may exist.
Becoming pregnant and/or having a child when someone is not ready is an incredibly scary situation, especially for teenagers. They need support and compassion, not judgement. These teens are young people that have a bright future ahead of them. Our perceptions and actions are the first step in reducing and one day eliminating these stigmas.
Written by: Nicole Holmes-Health Educator, Robert Crown Center for Health Education
American Public Health Association. (2013). Stigma as a Fundamental Cause of Population Health Inequities. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3682466/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Births: Final data for 2017. National Vital Statistics Reports, 67(8). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr67/nvsr67_08-508.pdf – PDF