Over centuries as lifespan has increased with the advent of modern medicine and industrialization, societal expectations, and development of each person through life has shifted. However, biologically, the body has remained the same, meaning that with the arrival of puberty, individuals can conceive and have children. It is well known that teenage years bring about rapid hormonal changes and along with that, sexual exploration. At the same time, there is a potential of pregnancy for teenagers due to lack of knowledge, understanding, and high-risk sexual behaviors. Teen pregnancy is a contentious social issue, as in modern society, teenagers are arguably both, not mature enough to be parents, nor do they practically have the resources to support a child in most cases. The presence of teen pregnancies in the U.S. can be attributed to a cyclical combination of social factors that result in an increased prevalence, difficult outcomes for the mother and child, and a lack of strong social support systems with presence of stigmatization, which all contribute to an environment where the next generation is at a greater risk to repeat similar choices and behaviors.
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Background and Statistics
Teenage pregnancy refers to a woman getting pregnant when between ages of 14 and 19, but in rare cases can include girls as young as 10. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the current teen birth rate is 16.7 per 1000 females. Despite almost a 70% decrease from its peak in 1990 at 62 per 1000, the U.S. teen pregnancy remains the highest among industrialized nations (CDC, 2021). While rates have been decreasing globally, due to a variety of factors such as teens having less sex due to technology or greater awareness and access to protection, teen pregnancy remains a significant social and medical problem.
Biologically, a girl can become pregnant as soon as she begins to ovulate after the first menstrual bleeding. Menarche occurs on average at 13-14 years of age, during the developmental stage known as early adolescence. From a historical perspective, teenage pregnancies were common, and considered normal, viewing early adolescence pregnancy as a greater chance of giving birth to a healthy baby and the mother surviving as well. Meanwhile, in modern society, teenage pregnancy is discouraged and considered a public health and societal problem. Some underdeveloped nations continue to experience high rates of teen childbirth, but that is due to cultural factors.
Industrialized nations attempt to prevent teenage pregnancies for a variety of reasons. First, biologically, modern medicine demonstrates that early adolescence pregnancy poses significant risks to the health of the mother and the child, including risk of anemia, preterm labor, hypertension, preeclampsia, low birth weight, and a high rate of cesarean sections (Kirchengast, 2016, para. 8). Socially, teenage pregnancies result in a series of cascading factors such as “low educational attainment, low income/poverty, single parenting,” and other social disadvantages for the mother and the child (Kirchengast, 2016, para. 9). While medical risks can potentially be negated through modern healthcare, the social problem of significant negative social consequences for the mother and the child are difficult to address. In developed countries, teen pregnancies and motherhood typically occur disproportionately greater in the most socio-economically disadvantaged populations and communities It becomes a hypothetical the chicken or the egg debate, as it is unclear whether social disadvantage is created by teen pregnancy or causes it.
Influences and Causes
Causes of teenage pregnancy can be divided into 3 categories: individual factors/peer influence, family/community influence and culture, and socio-economic determinants. Beginning with individual factors, taking all else out of consideration, each person is individually different in their development and sexuality. Some potential influences on teen pregnancy may be early onset of puberty, strong sex drive, sexually active peers or siblings, low self-esteem, limited education, and lack of any future goals. Some people begin dating and being sexually active at an early age or experience sexual pressure from peers (Sebold, 2002). This translates into family and community as well. If there is a lack of parental communication, supervision, or a parent was a teen parent themselves, then there is an increased chance for the child not to have the family values foundation in order to plan their life in the long-term, putting them at risk for teenage pregnancy (Stammers, 2002). In some communities and schools there may be a lack of accurate sexual health information, lack of community programs for youth. High rates of divorce and being raised in a single parent household are some influences which may lead to high-risk sexual behavior and pregnancy.
As for socio-economic factors, there has been an established connection between poverty and teen pregnancies. The U.S. faces a significant problem where large portions, commonly minorities such as Black, Hispanic, and Native American, “live with incomes at or below 200% federal poverty level” (Akella & Jordan, 2015, p.42). As a result of poverty, individuals lack quality education or healthcare. Children growing up in poverty are affected a range of social factors, including risk of teenage pregnancy but also drugs and substance abuse, crime, gang involvement, and high incidence of illiteracy. Children that are born from teenage pregnancy are more likely to mimic, resulting in unintentional pregnancies, perpetuating the cycle of intergenerational poverty (Akella & Jordan, 2015, p.42). Based on Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, there are cognitive and environmental determinants to human behavior, people learn behaviors by observing others in social situations and then imitating it. The younger the individual, the more likelihood that they are influenced by particular behavior models which are then reinforced cognitively, particularly if the ‘definitions’ conform to their cultural or social values (Akella & Jordan, 2015, p.43). Therefore, if a community embraces gang membership and violence to resolve issues, more young people are likely to emulate such behavior.
Research indicates that the more educated people in the community, the number of impoverished people will decline who do not have the qualifications to be productive members in the workforce, increasing quality of life and access to education and prevention measures (Akella & Jordan, 2015, p. 58). Therefore, teen pregnancy is closely tied in with the socioeconomic issues that have high prevalence in the U.S. political and social discourse currently.
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Upon the teenage pregnancy occurring, the mother has three realistic choices of either abortion, putting the child up for adoption after birth, or keeping the child to raise themselves. Out of the approximately 350,000 pregnancies in the U.S. under the age of 18, 82% are unintended. Approximately 55% choose to give birth, 31% have abortions, and 14% have miscarriages (ACLU, n.d.). The portion of unmarried females giving teen birth is 90.5% and the large majority remain as single parents. As an outcome of childbirth, girls are more likely to drop out of school or not pursue further education after their high school diploma/GED. If not already disadvantaged, they quickly lose any opportunity for upward mobility, and oftentimes descend into poverty (Kearney & Levine, 2012, p.158). From that point on, outcomes for teenage pregnancy are strangely familiar to its causes. Single parenting by the mother has an effect on child development as they lack either the attention, resources, or experience to participate. An impoverished lifestyle will prevent quality care, good education, and may lead to negative influences on the child.
Youth.gov (2021) lists some adverse effects associated with teen pregnancy. By 22 years of age, only 50% of teen mothers receive a high school diploma, in comparison to 90% of their peers. Only 10% of teen mothers complete any form of teenage education. Such households rely heavily on publicly funded healthcare, and be unemployed, both the mother, and the child when they grow up. The child is likely to struggle developmentally, both in skills and cognitive as well as emotional support. Finally, the child raised in such circumstances is more likely to have lower school achievement and educational attainment, be incarcerated during adolescence, and also become a teen parent.
In modern day, teenage pregnancy is surrounded by tremendous social stigma, even in communities where it occurs with more prevalence. Teen mothers are commonly stigmatized by stereotypes that they are irresponsible, unmotivated, or incompetent as a parent. As a result, their treatment socially or in healthcare to be of lower quality or discriminated against both openly or covertly (SmithBattle, 2013). The social stigma is not giving the mother to prove herself as a parent, making an already difficult situation increasingly worse, and being potentially one of the barriers to resolving this issue. The stigma oftentimes causes judgement rather discussion for solution within communities and leadership. Meanwhile, the sensitive topic often keeps away private enterprises and key stakeholders, whose expert input and resources are necessary towards the resolution of the problem. Stigmatization further contributes to the perpetuation of the cycle as it shames the mother and makes them distrustful of any help that the household may need.
Discussion – Teen Pregnancy Cause or Effect
Most public discourse regarding teen pregnancy suggests that it leads to negative outcomes for the mother and child. That remains accurate as discussed earlier that educational attainment struggles, and teen mothers are more likely to remain unmarried and live in poverty, with children being worse off than peers on an economic, social, and cognitive dimensions. If teen pregnancy was the cause of these various outcomes, it would be natural to consider solutions to prevent it via sex education, contraceptive access, or other related means. However, these have generally only a minor effect. If those who are poor have a greater chance at teenage pregnancy, the proposed solutions do not address the underlying factor where disadvantaged girls are more likely to drop out of school and not pursue a career, and struggle to create a healthy nuclear family (Kearney & Levine, 2012, p.158). In turn, “children born to teenage mothers are more likely to drop out of school, live in poverty, and become teen parents themselves” (Kearney & Levine, 2012, p.159). Based on Ecological Systems Theory and available statistics, Meade, Kershaw, and Ickovics (2008) determined that daughters of teenage mothers are 66% to have adolescent pregnancy themselves after accounting for other risks (p.419). This suggests that there is an intergenerational cycle of teenage motherhood, needing a multidimensional approach to solutions.
The high rate of teenage pregnancies in the U.S. is an indicator of a social problem rather than being an issue itself. While most teen pregnancies are unintended, but the mother keeps the child because she understands her life opportunities are extremely limited and will not improve if she delays childbearing, then teenage pregnancy is not causing that much of a detrimental effect (Kearney & Levine, 2012, p.159). Instead, it is simply a continuation of the cycle, one which its roots deeply ingrained in poverty and inequality of opportunity, which is why the birth rates for Hispanic and Black teens is more than double than that of white teens.
The CDC has labeled teen pregnancy as a high priority issue, with its prevention being in the top six priorities (CDC, 2021). Many experts and non-profit research organizations advocate reducing teen pregnancies through comprehensive sexual education and increased access to contraceptive options. This is based on the premise that those teens who choose to have sex are unlikely to be deterred by fearmongering, so it is best to provide them with appropriate tools for safe sex and avoidance of pregnancy. This can be done through school sex education, youth-friendly clinical services, community wide programs, and national support programs to decrease racial and geographic disparities.
One strategy that has shown effectiveness in research is the increased use of LARC methods among adolescents such as intrauterine devices with a rate of prevention being over 90% (McCraken & Loveless, 2014, p.356). Other options such as birth control are available. A framework for adolescent guidance and counseling has been developed with a focus on “confidentiality, adolescent development, and practical principles” to ensure consistency and understanding (McCraken & Loveless, 2014, p.356). One of the main issues to this preventive approach is that there is social division around this topic as well, particularly contraception. Conservative and religious ideologies typically strongly oppose educating teenagers on the use of contraceptives and tools to safe sex citing that it encourages sexual activity and deviance. Therefore, many U.S. jurisdictions simply limit such opportunities for prevention.
The issue is undoubtedly complicated and will require a multifaceted solution. Kearney and Levine (2012) argue that traditional policies of abstinence, education, and prevention are unlikely to have any long-term effect. It may contribute to a small decline through several preventive pregnancies per year, but nothing else. Instead, the authors suggest policies directed towards improved economic opportunities and reduction of poverty are likely to have a lasting impact, likely also addressing a wide variety of other social issues as week. Some of the suggestions are early childhood education so parents can work, improved access to financial aid for college of any type, and measures tackling inequality and lack of social mobility, particularly for ethnic minorities (Kearney & Levine, 2012, p.163). Once the teenagers see improved prospects for adult outcomes, teen pregnancy will rapidly decline as an outcome.
It is evident based on the information presented that teen pregnancies are a deeply rooted social issue. At the same time, efforts being undertaken by governments and schools aiming to teach abstinence and maybe use of protection, are largely ineffective. Teen pregnancies remain a troublesome factor that is treated by society with significant stigmatization and lack of support for the young mother. As a result, the child often grows up in either a broken family or without one in a foster home, most likely in poverty-like conditions and without a strong foundational background for healthy development. It creates a cycle of negative factors, as the child may pursue bad decisions as they get older due to this lack of support, ranging from being involved in teen pregnancy themselves to potentially even crime. These outcomes can be changed by shifting the societal perspective on teen pregnancy and providing support at the government and community level in order to ensure that both the mother and the child (as well as the father potentially) are healthy, educated, and can provide the proper environment for raising a child.
ACLU. (n.d.). Laws restricting teenagers’ access to abortion. Web.
Akella, D., & Jordan, M. (2014). Impact of social and cultural factors on teenage pregnancy. Journal of Health Disparities Research and Practice, 8(1), 41-61. Web.
CDC. (2021). About teen pregnancy. Web.
Kearney, M. S., & Levine, P. B. (2012). Why is the teen birth rate in the United States so high and why does it matter? Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(2), 141–166. Web.
Kirchengast, S. (2016). Teenage pregnancies: A worldwide social and medical problem. An Analysis of Contemporary Social Welfare Issues. Web.
McCracken, K. A., & Loveless, M. (2014). Teen pregnancy: An update. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 26(5), 355–359. Web.
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Meade, C. S., Kershaw, T. S., & Ickovics, J. R. (2008). The intergenerational cycle of teenage motherhood: An ecological approach. Health Psychology, 27(4), 419–429. Web.
SmithBattle, L. I. (2013). Reducing the stigmatization of teen mothers. MCN. The American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing, 38(4), 235–241. Web.
Trevor Stammers. (2002). Teenage Pregnancies Are Influenced By Family Structure. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 324(7328), 51. Web.
Youth.gov. (2021). The adverse effects of teen pregnancy. Web.