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8 Teenage and Single Pregnancy in the United Stateslocked

8 Teenage and Single Pregnancy in the United Stateslocked

  • Rickie Solinger
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How have attitudes about single and teenage pregnancy changed since World War II?

Once p. 50again, as with so much of reproductive politics, the question immediately and urgently touches upon race and class. Between about 1945 and 1970, with many institutions still widely enforcing racial segregation, public policies and social service agencies developed racially separate programs for single women who became pregnant. Community authorities and parents prescriptively pressed unwed, pregnant, white females to leave their communities and spend the second half of their pregnancies in all-white maternity homes or elsewhere, give up their babies for adoption, and then return to the community, keeping the “illegitimate” episode a secret. This period marked the invention of the concept—and the functioning—of a national “adoption market,” largely serving a white population.

At the same time, policy makers and others penalized unwed mothers of color—for example, by mandating the loss of welfare benefits and public housing, incarceration, p. 51and sterilization. Families of color did not generally favor ­adoption, preferring to acknowledge, keep, and raise their babies born “out of wedlock.” Though responses to unwed pregnancy varied across races in these decades, most involved coercion, loss, and punishment for all groups of women.

In 2010, rates of teen pregnancy were at historic lows, 44 percent lower than the peak in 1991, and 64 percent lower than the all-time high levels in 1957 during the baby boom, when many girls married and had their first babies in their teens.1 On the other hand, the rates of unwed childbearing are much higher than in the past, with more than 40 percent of all babies in the United States born to unmarried mothers. Demographically, 73 percent of non-Hispanic black children, 53 percent of Hispanic children, and 29 percent of non-Hispanic white children are born to unmarried women.2 Many policy makers seem to ascribe this less to race than to poverty, arguing that single motherhood causes poverty while marriage reduces it.3 Others argue that the causes of poverty are more complex; that marrying a poor man does not typically make a poor woman less poor; and that many poor women with few clear life options or opportunities are likely to choose motherhood as one of the only available routes to adulthood.4 While having a baby outside of marriage may deepen poverty today, a mother (especially if she is not a teenager or black) is generally no longer the target of societal shame. The falling away of this stigma has been an important factor in dramatically reducing the number of babies that white unwed mothers give up for adoption.

It is worth noting that the increases in US rates of unmarried pregnancy and motherhood are occurring as part of worldwide trends in the same direction. For example, many Western European countries have higher rates of unwed childbearing than the United States, and all European countries show substantial rises in the past thirty years, with the Netherlands, Spain, and Ireland having the sharpest increases.

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What rights do teenagers have regarding reproductive health care?

Following p. 52Roe and the association of reproductive rights with the right to privacy, states have expanded the rights of minors to consent to health care, including the right to obtain contraception. More than half the states, recognizing that many teenagers who are sexually active will not seek contraceptive services at all if they have to tell their parents first, either have no restriction on minors’ access to contraception or have policies that define the conditions under which a minor can have access.

A majority of states require parental involvement—notification or consent—when a minor seeks abortion. The Supreme Court has ruled that parents may not have absolute veto power over a daughter’s decision; still, many states require that one parent be involved. Some states allow a medical emergency exception and/or a judicial bypass, which allows a minor to obtain an abortion without parental involvement if a judge approves, or with the involvement of a parent-substitute, such as a grandparent.

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How are children born to teenage mothers and to single mothers affected?

An important, ongoing longitudinal study, “The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study,” conducted jointly by research groups at Columbia and Princeton universities, shows that while half of unmarried parents are in “marriage-like” relationships and living with partners at the time of their child’s birth, children born to unmarried parents are still more likely to grow up in poverty and not to fare as well as children born to married parents. For example, children living with unmarried mothers are likely to develop language skills more slowly and do less well on cognitive tests. Boys in these families are also likely to display more aggressive behavior than boys in families with married parents.5

Most p. 53studies do not explicitly compare the target population (children of unmarried parents) with children of divorced parents, for example, or with children of low-income married parents. But single mothers—including divorced, separated, or widowed mothers, as well as those never married—face the highest poverty rates (nearly 50 percent). It is difficult to distinguish whether this is because poor women have fewer opportunities to marry yet still want to become mothers, or whether the fact of having a child while unmarried causes poverty. We do know that poverty itself leads to problematic ­developmental outcomes for poor children and that being poor at birth is a strong predictor of future poverty status. Thirty-one percent of white children and 69 percent of black children who are poor at birth go on to spend at least half their childhoods living in poverty. In addition, children who are born into poverty and spend multiple years living in poor families have worse adult outcomes than their counterparts in higher-income families, such as more difficulty achieving employment and marital stability. Finally, the question remains, should low-income women refrain from having children or should social policies support a right of all women to reproduce, and assist those who for whatever reason need economic aid? These questions are particular important now as the child poverty rate in the United States has recently hit levels not seen since the 1960s.6