Thursday, April 17, 2008
Punished With A Baby: How We Hurt Pregnant Teens
For two years, I taught Spanish language and literature in a poor public school in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Aside from a 'virginity pledge' that all ninth graders were encouraged to sign (pledges in which 14 and 15-year-olds promise to abstain from all sexual activity until marriage), there was not much in the way of sexual education for the students. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that teen pregnancy was a big issue in our little school. During my second year of teaching, four of my students became pregnant and stopped attending classes. As a foreign language teacher, I only taught students who were working towards the advanced diploma, so these young women were among the brightest and most motivated students. It was tragic to see them disappear, but the school encouraged pregnant girls to stop attending once their situation became obvious. There were tutors, the administration argued, that could help them continue their studies at home (although not for the advanced degree). When I challenged the effectiveness of twice weekly home tutoring that lasted mere hours each week, my principal explained that the girls would be more comfortable at home. She then added that we did not want to send a message to the other students that our school condoned teenage pregnancy. The administration's position seemed to rest on the assumption that other girls would see their pregnant peers and long for morning sickness and stretchy-waisted pants. Few girls returned to classes after giving birth. Pregnancy effectively meant the end of their high school education.
I was not the only person on the staff to see the injustice of the situation. Two weeks after she was hired, a young counselor offered to run a group for pregnant teens. She planned to talk to the girls about options for continuing their educations after giving birth, and about practical matters like managing finances and baby nutrition. This counselor offered to lead the group in the evenings, after the other students had left for the day. Her idea was rejected and she was told that she was not allowed to use school facilities for a teen pregnancy support group, even if she did it on her own time.
This is why I completely understood what Sen. Barack Obama meant when he said that, while he planned to teach his daughters about morality and responsibility, he did not want them 'punished with a baby' for any mistake they might make. Yet, this discussion of how conservatives and liberals frame family-planning and sex-education issues made me consider my own use of this "lefty jargon." Apparently, Obama's comments have led to accusations that he doesn't value babies - that he sees them as a punishment. Anyone who has thought deeply about why we have such high rates of teen pregnancy in this country, or about how we treat young pregnant women, immediately understood what he was trying to express. Yet, perhaps he was using a short-hand that distracted from his real point.
So, let's be clear. Having a child is not a punishment. Being forced to have a child is. Having your educational opportunities destroyed is a punishment. Having valuable information withheld, information that could help a young mother care for herself and her child, is a punishment. Being told that you are no longer worthy of the community's support is perhaps the most serious punishment that could be imposed on a young person. These are the punishments that Obama hopes that his daughters, and all our daughters, will be able to avoid.