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.