Why Liberals Are Wrong on Teen Pregnancy

New York's teen-pregnancy ads (nydailynews.com)
New York's teen-pregnancy ads (nydailynews.com)

(The Root) — There's a scene in the wildly popular TV show Downton Abbey in which a single mother working as a prostitute to support her son is torn between giving him up for adoption by his wealthy grandparents or raising him herself. A well-heeled, well-meaning social activist encourages her to keep the child, saying that while he might not have the same opportunities with his biological mother that he would with the other family, he would have a decent life with her all the same.


Of course, then the child's mother makes the kind of observation that makes most limousine liberals uncomfortable, whether on a television show set in England or in real-life American politics. The mother acknowledges that, yes, her son would have a life with her — but not the kind of life the nosy social activist's son had growing up, filled with a quality education and plentiful professional opportunities. (Spoiler coming if you watch the show.) The mother decides that her son deserves the same quality of life that this rich woman's son enjoyed, and she is selfless enough to give him to a family who can give that life to him. 

I was reminded of this scene as I read the ridiculous criticism being lobbed by a bunch of well-meaning privileged people at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for his support of an ad campaign aimed at curbing teen pregnancy in that city. The campaign pulls no punches, featuring infant children surrounded by quotes about how their lives, and the lives of their families, are likely to turn out in households headed by teen parents. One poster reads, "If you finish high school, get a job, and get married before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty." Another reads, "I'm twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen."

Apparently some liberal critics publicly object to the campaign (including a few of my well-intentioned but misguided friends in media and politics, who won't care for this piece and will probably tell me so). But they don't object to the campaign on the basis of fact, because, of course, the campaign is factually accurate. A child is statistically more likely to have access to greater financial and academic opportunity if not raised by a teen mother. So just what is it about the campaign that has critics so riled up?

Well, according to Planned Parenthood, "The latest NYC ad campaign creates stigma, hostility and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy and parenthood rather than offering alternative aspirations for young people." I'm not sure where to start with this lunacy. First off, I thought that as one of the nation's leading sexual-health organizations, Planned Parenthood would focus on decreasing the number of unplanned pregnancies, not celebrating and encouraging them. Did I miss something?

Second, I'm much less concerned about the stigma teen parents may face than about the lifetime stigma their children face as they miss out on one opportunity after another because their parents weren't ready to realize their full potential as parents while raising them. (As I've mentioned in previous pieces, one of my parents was once a teen parent — and attests to the challenges it brings and therefore applauds the campaign.)

Considering that one of the most widely covered reality-TV trainwrecks — second only to the Kardashians — was the star of a show called Teen Mom, I would think that Planned Parenthood has more pressing media concerns than stopping an anti-teen-pregnancy campaign, but apparently not. The show Teen Mom and other reality shows, such as 16 and Pregnant, are perfect examples of why this campaign is needed.


Studies show that becoming famous is a greater priority to the millennial generation than to preceding generations. So when you have teenagers becoming famous on reality shows just for becoming pregnant, and the most famous reality-TV family in history shows the glamour of having multiple "baby daddies" in the family (here's looking at you, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian), where exactly is the average teen supposed to get the memo that his kid is unlikely to enjoy the upbringing that Kanye West's kid will? And that they are unlikely to enjoy 15 minutes of fame like the Teen Mom stars?

For anyone who thinks shame is not an effective motivator, ask any smokers if that's true. For the record, Attorney General Eric Holder once argued that if we shamed gun owners the way we've shamed smokers, we'd have less crime. No, I'm not comparing teen moms to criminals, but I am comparing them to those with questionable judgment, like smokers.


While we're on the subject, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg's aggressive campaign of shaming, blaming and taxing smokers, the number of smokers in New York has decreased by 27 percent since he took office.

There are many reasons to give Mayor Bloomberg a hard time. The fact that he essentially bullied his way into a third term of his reign is one of them. His administration's questionable response to the city's homeless problem is another. But his genuine effort to address teen pregnancy and its relationship to poverty is not one.


I just wonder if the women of privilege running Planned Parenthood, which has struggled with diversity in the past, realize that children born in poor communities deserve the same opportunities their kids do — which means not just randomly distributing birth control but actually giving poor women the same information, incentives and life goals that women who grow up in privilege often take for granted. That includes providing accurate information about why when you choose to become a parent matters. 

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter