Our Culture’s Teen Pregnancy Ethical Conflict

Unwed teenage pregnancies are on the rise again. There are many reasons, but one of them has to be this: it is hard to discourage self-destructive and societally damaging conduct while the culture celebrates it.

Popular culture and the media conveys a message regarding this phenomenon that is so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. Sex is good. Sex for the unmarried can be very good, but sex for the unmarried teen is risky, though still nothing to be ashamed of. Single motherhood is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of if you’re a rich actress like Jodie Foster, David Letterman’s girlfriend, or a U.S. Congresswoman, but it is likely to throw your entire life out of whack if you aren’t rich, and is a probable ticket to poverty for the mother and diminished life opportunities for the child. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just, well, unfortunate. Having an abortion isn’t exactly good, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either, though it is also something everyone seems to agree should be as “rare” as possible. Not having an abortion, movies like “Juno” tell us, is brave and admirable, especially if you plan to give up the child for adoption—-but there’s certainly nothing wrong with keeping the baby either. That’s courageous, too, and of course everyone admires mothers, married or otherwise.

More than ever before, pregnancy itself is celebrated in the media, with proud celebrity mothers showing off their “baby bumps” like high-priced fashion accessories, and then, short weeks after giving birth, appearing on runways and “red carpets” looking as if they had never had a baby at all. Characters on popular TV dramas and comedies become pregnant and have babies without losing a step in their jobs; many of them are single, like Murphy Brown, and as with Murphy Brown, their child becomes conveniently invisible once the pregnancy is over.

Nobody wants to go back to the dark ages when unmarried school pregnant students were expelled and shunned. A teen pregnancy is a life crisis, and the ethical response to another human being’s life crisis is compassion, kindness, and support. A culture, however, needs to make choices. If unmarried teen pregnancies are a sufficient social problem to cause alarm when they begin to rise in frequency, then they are obviously not good. If they are not good, our culture has to communicate that to teens both before and, if necessary after they become pregnant.

Striking the right balance between compassion and disapproval is difficult, and I am not prepared to solve that problem here. I am prepared to say that glamorizing and romanticizing unwed motherhood in the media and in popular entertainment is irresponsible. There are noisy and relentless organizations that will attack any actor who smokes on television or in movies as recklessly endangering impressionable teens who may emulate them, but cheerful portrayals of unwed motherhood seldom garner a peep of protest except from religious  groups, which are then dismissed as crackpot moralists.  This contrast makes no sense. A pregnancy is at least as harmful to a teen as a smoking habit. Popular culture used to romanticize cigarette smoking too, until cultural pressure gradually  effected a change.
We have to make up our minds. If teen pregnancies are a problem (and they are), adults need to be responsible and stop cheering unwed mothers. The culture, if it cannot aggressively disapprove unmarried pregnancies, must at least stop aggressively approving them. In the end, it is not compassionate to mislead young single women, especially poor young women without resources, to believe that getting pregnant is a wonderful, glamorous, exciting  thing that will have everyone applauding. Stop applauding.

If teen pregnancies are bad for the mother, bad for the child and a burden on society, then they are wrong. We can’t reduce the frequency of conduct that is wrong by sending the message that it is right.

8 thoughts on “Our Culture’s Teen Pregnancy Ethical Conflict

  1. It isn’t just the media that is the problem (at least not anymore). Pregnant teenagers are showered with attention. People ask when the baby is due, if she has picked out the child’s first outfit, etc. The girl is surrounded by people planning baby showers, giving her baby clothes, helping her pick out color schemes. To express disapproval of this is to attract scorn. In addition, for the poorest girls, the state will pay for their own apartment, food, healthcare, daycare, and college costs (but only if she remains unmarried). What is unattractive about that to a 15 or 16 year old girl? Teenagers don’t look at the longterm effects. People just don’t get it, the girls are getting pregnant on purpose because of the ‘benefits’ that they see the other pregnant girls getting.

  2. So what you’re saying is that society needs to learn the difference between being compassionate and enabling detrimental behavior.

    Or perhaps even more concisely, it is not compassionate to glamorize a process while ignoring the outcome.

  3. I AGREE COMPLETELY. As the mother of a 18-year-old girl, I have been horrified at the number of pro-pregnancy messages being sent to her. MTV’s series on pregnant teens stopped when the baby was born — please, please, pop in on the young mother a few months, years later! Let’s see how fun it is then! “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” completely normalizes teen pregnancy. And in real life? Moms don’t talk about it, or, as far as I can tell, take responsibility. We have to protect our daughters’ futures, and be very aggressive about it, since hormones, boys, and popular culture are all sending the same dangerous message.

  4. It’s not just society’s fault on this; where are the parents? My mother had my sister as a teen and struggled until she met and married my father in the early 70s; 9 years later my other sister and I came along. My mom talked to me at an early age on the struggles of her life as an unwed teenage mother who lived in an apartment with 6 other girls and worked at McDonalds because no one was there for her. and she told me that I was not allowed to date until I was 18 years old and that if I ever found myself in that position that I would be on my own. (I never believed her that she wouldn’t be there for me if I made the same mistake that she did, but I wasn’t about to call her bluff) I waited until 18 do anything with a boy, and then married my only love at age 21 (I’ve just turned 30) I knew of some teen moms who’s families were angry at the situation but then adjusted their lives and accepted it. 1 girl had not 1 but 2 kids while in her teens, she gave her children over to her parents graduated school, went to college, and started dating, sure she worked hard and earned everything that she had, but she was only able to get any of that because her parents raised her children.
    A coworker of mine got pregnant at age 16, married by 18 had another child and then divorced by age 24 she is currently 29 and living with her parents, she is constantly in and out of relationships, and has her 13 year old daughter helping her shop for inappropriate clothes at the mall… she is all the time telling me how mature she is, but as I pay off my mortgage in 4 months and plan my 10th wedding anniversary vacation overseas; all I can do is roll my eyes at her, yes she dropped out of school as a teen, just like I did, she got her GED, just like I did, she went on to college for the same profession that I went to college for… however she still makes the poor choices that she used to make as a teen, she still lives with her parents so they afford her to make these inane lifestyle choices. If you take the accepting compliant parents out of the equation then you have girls making poor choices and living with them.
    I can tell you of so many other situations of young teen moms whose families alter their lives to pretty much be the financial support for their daughters. If parents would stop being such a resource for their irresponsible daughters then these teen moms would realize hey; “my life has changed, my parents aren’t there for me, I am on my own, I’ve made my bed now I have to lay in it”. And maybe then other teen girls will start to think of it as a burden to steer clear of instead of a glorified attention getting society accepted lifestyle.

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