Choices, Culture, and Pressure: some thoughts on why pregnant teens make the decisions they do

This is not a post about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy, nor is it a post about the failures of abstinence-only education. It is not a commentary on the suitability of Sarah Palin for the office of vice-president.

Glendon Brown wrote a post about choice yesterday, a post in which he linked to this old piece of mine. In Glendon’s offering he makes the case that Sarah Palin needs to answer a simple question:

Given the real world experiences that have shown that abstinence-only education doesn’t work, what policies would you pursue that would actually reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies?” We could even ask, “How would your policies help 17 year old girls who don’t want to be parents?”

Worthy questions.

Glendon made me re-read my own post about choosing abortion. I was a senior in high school, and my girlfriend a year behind me when she got pregnant. I was 17, just as Bristol Palin is now. Both my girlfriend and I told our parents soon after we discovered that she was pregnant, and we asked for their support and advice. Presumably, Bristol Palin did the same thing.

The reason I write about this today is not to question Bristol’s choice to keep the child or to marry the future baby’s father. And no, nearly a quarter-century after I accompanied my girlfriend to the doctor’s office for an abortion on a warm June Saturday morning, I am not second-guessing a decision that we made jointly. What I’m thinking about today is the role that parents and culture play in shaping the reproductive decisions that adolescents make.

The Palins presumably taught Bristol she should be abstinent until she was married. She ended up pregnant at 17. My high-school girlfriend, whom I’ll call “Mary”, and I were raised by liberal parents, parents who encouraged us to use contraception when and if we chose to have intercourse. The Palins are evangelical conservatives; Mary and I were raised by atheist progressives who donated to Planned Parenthood. And the end result was the same: the daughter of the fundamentalist and the daughter of the progressive each ended up with an unintended pregnancy. No ideology, no theology, and no amount of parental love is a perfect prophylaxis against gettin’ knocked up. Human experience bears out that truth with abundant evidence.

Though I flirted with the idea of asking Mary to keep the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption, I knew that that wasn’t what she wanted. Neither of us wanted to get married, and neither of us even considered the possibility of raising the child together. There were many reasons why abortion was chosen, but perhaps one reason among many was that we both came from families where that was the preferred option. I know that Mary’s mother would have been devastated if her daughter had put off her college plans in order to have a child; my family would have been equally upset. If we had polled our extended families (we didn’t), the consensus would have been that abortion was the “least worst” option.

Mind you, our families didn’t talk us into doing something to which we were strongly opposed. (We were both tearful and deeply ambivalent much of the time!) Mary and I stayed together as a couple for nearly a year after the abortion, and she remained adamant that she had made the right choice. (We were both, admittedly, a little tearful in February 1986, when what would have been the due date for that pregnancy passed.) I haven’t seen Mary in twenty years. It is simply impossible to imagine how different our lives would be if she had kept the baby, or gotten married.

I am not haunted by the abortion for which I was half responsible, and I am confident Mary isn’t either. But I remember well what it was like to be young and scared. I remember that when we found out about the pregnancy, both Mary and I went through separate periods of regression with our parents. I found myself feeling very scared and very young, reminded by the enormity of the situation that I was, in fact, not yet fully adult. Sixteen year-old Mary, who had been distant from her mother in the months leading up to the discovery of the pregnancy, suddenly became much closer to her. For a short time, we were both far more reliant on our families than we had been. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the abortion experience brought me closer to my family and Mary closer to hers.

Mary and I were blessed with very good parents. I am sure the Palins are also good parents. But the point is, at the moment a pregnancy is discovered, family pressure can be enormous. Had Mary and I decided to marry and raise the child, we would eventually have won acceptance from our kin, but we would have faced stiff resistance. Similarly, if a girl like Bristol Palin were to choose to terminate the pregnancy, she would presumably be forgiven –eventually — by her parents, but would face colossal pressure to make a different decision. Teenagers famously over-estimate their own emotional autonomy; when a pregnancy comes, the need for family support is often very great. And that need for support makes the teenager vulnerable to external pressure one way or another.

We live in a culture that shames teenage pregnancy. My mother was very loving with me when I told her, but at one point she said to me “Hugo, how could you?” She didn’t mean “How could you have had sex”, she meant “How could you have had sex without using protection?” In a more conservative family, the same question might be asked with the same tone of exasperation and disappointment. Neither Mary nor I were ever made to feel bad for having chosen to have sex, but we were admonished for having had sex without birth control. A family like the Palins might embrace Bristol, but the admonishment that will surely come will have more to do with a violation of abstinence ideology than the lack of reliance on contraception. And whether the parents are upset about the sex itself, or about the absence of protection, it’s pretty likely that the kids involved will feel some degree of embarrassment and guilt.

When we feel guilty about something, we want to expiate that guilt. The conservative Christian narrative is that guilt is expiated by getting married and having the baby. In a more progressive middle-class family like my own, the guilt is expiated by having an abortion and becoming a more assiduous employer of birth control. Of course, plenty of young people don’t tell their parents about an unintended pregnancy. And plenty of young people make decisions that contradict their families expectations. But there’s no escaping the reality that the culture in which a teen is raised has a significant influence on the decision that she (and, sometimes, the boy who impregnated her) will make when confronted with this all-too-familiar crisis. If Bristol Palin had had Mary’s parents, she might have made a different choice. And if I had been dating a girl from Bristol’s background, I might well be the father of a twenty-two year-old today.

As a youth worker, I’ve walked with kids through this decision. I’ve sat with a fifteen year-old girl from All Saints as she told her parents she was pregnant; I’ve also helped pay (out of my own pocket) for another girl’s abortion. In the latter case, the young woman was too scared to tell her parents, and I honored that decision. She knew she’d be pressured to keep the baby, and she didn’t want that. And in a third case, my wife’s niece got pregnant a few years ago at age 17. She came to us first, not to her parents, and told us she wanted to have the baby and raise it on her own. (The sperm donor had no interest in being in the picture.) My wife and I supported her wholeheartedly, and never pressured her to have an abortion or give the child up for adoption. We continue to help provide financially and emotionally for our great-nephew.

The point? Teenagers who get pregnant need advice, they need love, they need direction. But they also deserve the right to decide from whom it is they should receive those things. which is why I am so adamantly opposed to parental notification laws. I know well how comforting loving parents can be in a time of crisis; I also know well just how powerful the pressure can be to make a choice that is congruent with the family world view. In the end, Mary and I almost certainly would have chosen differently had we come from different backgrounds. The same might well be said for Bristol Palin.

Commenting Policy:

Not the place to discuss the Palin nomination, folks.

19 thoughts on “Choices, Culture, and Pressure: some thoughts on why pregnant teens make the decisions they do

  1. Very good post, Hugo. I notice that even though the questions that started your thought process asked about policies, your entire post was about family and society – that’s not a mistake, I’m sure, because no policy can override the pressures we feel from our families and peers.

    I had an acquaintance in high school who got pregnant. She wanted to have the kid and give it up for adoption. Her parents didn’t want the stigma of having a pregnant teenager. They dragged her off to the abortion clinic and it had some pretty emotional consequences for her.

    I don’t know how any policy can change that sort of situation. That’s a purely societal attitude motivated by parents wanting to be accepted by their peers. Enacting laws doesn’t remove stigmas. Making it as easy as possible to give children up for adoption won’t help a teen carry a baby to term if her parents don’t want a pregnant teenager walking around.

  2. I’ve known similar stories, both of young women being pressured into abortion and of young women being pressured into giving up a baby for adoption that they would otherwise have tried to raise. And plenty of stories of young women being pressured to marry someone they didn’t want to marry.

  3. It seems like that’s a side of the coin that pro-choice advocates don’t emphasize often enough. Of course, it’s important work to ensure that the option of abortion isn’t closed off, but choosing to have the child is a choice, too, and should be honored and given as much deference as the choice to abort.

  4. Uh, B? The whole point of “pro-choice” is that it’s the woman’s choice what to do – that’s why it’s not “anti-birth”.

  5. Ignoring your snippiness, mythago, I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that the campaigning that pro-choice people do is more weighted on one side than the other. I’m on Planned Parenthood mailing lists and have participated in other awareness raising projects since college, and the focus is always on providing a path for allowing women to either prevent or end a pregnancy. The scary chance of that choice being removed from our plates is far weightier on our minds – I don’t think that women who are being forced into an abortion or adoption situation that they don’t want are finding enough advocates in the pro-choice world. I had a professor in college who said it’s not a good campaigning choice because it gives ammo to the pro-life side, “See, if abortions were outlawed, people couldn’t be forced to get one!”

  6. “When we feel guilty about something, we want to expiate that guilt. The conservative Christian narrative is that guilt is expiated by getting married and having the baby.”

    Hmmm, I would argue that the conservative Christian narrative is more that, through Christ, we are forgiven (or our feelings expiated in your parlance) for that which we did which is sinful, but that we are also responsible for it. Could it be out of a sense of responsibility and acceptance rather than guilt that babies are carried to term in Christian households?

    The few Christian couples I am aware of in these circumstances (two in our church over the last year) had a daughter who had the child and then gave it up for adoption, which seems inconsistent with your “getting married” part of the equation but consistent with the taking responsibility part. I think this option is also considered acceptable in the conservative Christian narrative, despite your cliche insinuation otherwise.

  7. I don’t think it’s incorrect to say that the campaigning that pro-choice people do is more weighted on one side than the other.

    The opposition is built around removing abortion as an option. Obviously the pro-choicers are going to have to focus on abortion in response. You go where the arguments are.

  8. MT, I agree that carrying the child to term and giving it up for adoption is indeed an acceptable option, though I think it’s tinged with a bit more shame in conservative circles than the “getting married” option. For some folks, being married by the day the baby is born vitiates the sin of not being married the day the baby was conceived. If an unmarried woman gives the baby up for adoption, she gave birth in an unwed state; in a Christian culture that makes an idol of marriage (despite Paul’s lukewarm feelings about the institution), getting married before the baby is born is often a “get out of jail free” card (in terms of public opprobrium). Putting the kid up for adoption may be seen as heroic, but the “unwed” status of the birth mother gets a lot of focus too.

  9. B, the name “Planned Parenthood” sort of gives away the bag, no? It’s based on the idea that women ought to be able to plan when and where they become parents, which means a focus on birth control rather than on adoption is not inappropriate.

    You’re right, however, that we need to be as bold as we can be about creating the maximum number of choices for women. For example, free high-quality child care for single parents going to college would be a way to demonstrate a commitment to making keeping the child more palatable.

  10. Hugo and Craig, that’s all true and fairly stated. I’m not disputing reality, just lamenting it a bit.

  11. Hugo – I’m intriqued by the two variations on the “How could you?” question – for some the question of “How could you have sex?” and for others “How could you have sex without protection?”

    I think about the parents of youth I work with in church and most of them would ask the same question your mother asked – probably in much the same tone and with much the same meaining. The pressure on teens who have sex is to do it safely – and failing to take precautions to prevent pregnancy is seen as irresponsible, in much the same vein as driving without a seatbelt – something unwise, that one should know better than.

    By contrst, for the “How could you have sex?” parents it seems there’s a much more serious meaning – that having sex is seen as a moral failure not just an irresponsible choice.

  12. Hey Hugo, Welcome back. As a mom, I really appreciate your perspective and that, of your parents. I also read a certain kind of aggression in abstinence policies, especially when being pitched towards girls. I think Glendnb is on to something about “moral failure” applied to kids who have sex in a conservative culture. Perhaps it is because “How could you have sex?” has lifelong public consequences, where as “How could you have sex without protection?” has more private consequences.

  13. Not ignoring your intellectual dishonesty, B, nobody is trying to make it illegal for women to give birth if they become pregnant outside of marriage. Nobody is trying to change the law so that women must prove they have a good reason to stop using contraception. Nobody is firebombing maternity clinics or the offices of doctors who provide prenatal care.

    So, yes, there is more of an emphasis on keeping those choices open, because there is far less of a threat to the choices of adoption or keeping one’s baby. I’m not sure where you get your information that women being forced into giving up a baby get no help from pro-choicers.

  14. No help? When you mash my statements into something I didn’t say, as phrases like “more weighted” and “often enough” certainly aren’t the extremes you’re suggesting, no wonder you want to be combative. As far as where I got my “information” from, I already stated that I was lamenting what I’ve seen with the various awareness and fundraising campaigns I’ve been involved with, especially one run by the college professor I quoted. You don’t have to convince me that women who choose abortions face obstacles that need to be toppled, I’ve been there for years. I really don’t know what you’re arguing for, or where this “intellectual dishonesty” comes in, so I’m done.

  15. You were done long before you thought ‘no tagbacks’ was a great closing argument, B. I’m utterly sick of backhanded attacks on reproductive rights – pretend arguments that if only pro-choice folks concentrated more on the babies and less on the whole stopping terrorism directed at women’s clinics, say, that people would like them better.

  16. Since this post deals with choice and culture and their impact on pregnancy decisions, it might help to at least identify probable varying circumstances that affect such decisions. I’ll heed the Palin discussion warning and not discuss the nomination per se, but the economic circumstances of her family bear mentioning. You claim that “Mary” and Bristol Palin faced the same result despite divergent cultural backgrounds, but then go to some length pointing out that, in fact (assuming that Bristol does carry her child to term) they will not be coming to the same result, due to, at least in part, the divergent expectations of their families. I thought that I might look at one possible factor explaining the divergent familial expectations and outcomes.

    Todd Palin is a steelworker and union representative who works for BP on the North Slope, and also a commercial fisherman. He does not have a college degree. He makes a little less than $100,000 a year. Much of that work, obviously, is affected by Alaska’s seasonal climate, which puts limits on when his work is done in the year, probably affording him at least some significant off-time during the year. Governor Palin earns a statutory salary of $125,000 a year, as chief executive of a state whose legislature meets, by law, 90 days out of the year. She received her BS from the University of Idaho, a university ranked 3rd tier by USNWR, on a scholarship. I don’t know what Bristol Palin and her (presumptive) fianceé, Levi Johnston’s, future plans are. But the involvement and support of the Palin family in their daughter’s situation may give them more options. In any event, Bristol’s parents’ fortunes demonstrate perhaps somewhat less of a trade-off between fertility and livelihood than we might be led to expect in other parts of the country.

    Hugo, you and I both grew up in coastal regions of California. How easy would it be for a family with one parent lacking a college degree and the other with a BS from a 3rd tier school to support 5 children in comfort, one of whom has Downs Syndrome, and be prepared to support one of those children becoming a mother at 17, considering the salary that one is likely to make with that background, how far that salary would go, and the amount of time away from work that the parents would have, in coastal California today? (You can throw in the current cost of education, and the number of years one often has to pay off student debt, if you wanted to change the hypothetical to give the parents more competitive educations for the California labor market.) Are the prospects of young parents and large families better or worse with these factors in consideration, than they would be in Alaska? Is it reasonable to conclude that attitudes towards early pregnancy, its potential impact on one’s life, and perhaps thus prevailing family and community attitudes and reactions, might be affected by these macro-level phenomena?

    Just some food for thought.

  17. Mythago, I said I was done because you’re arguing something I’m not even arguing or disagreeing about, so what’s the point? I don’t know where you’re getting your attacks from, but I’m not interested in engaging with someone who’s telling me I’m saying something I’m not.

  18. Yet here you are, engaging and arguing. If you’re done, be done, instead of jumping up and down and telling me to STFU.

  19. I thought I could bring something to the part of this discussion about teenage girls being pressured into choosing abortion by various outside parties, because I managed an abortion clinic for a while. A pregnant teen is sad enough, but one being pressured into ANY choice by her parents is heartbreaking (including Bristol Palin, I suspect), and this happens more often than people realize. (The important background here is that I am unabashedly and extremely pro-choice and have worked in the field my entire adult life, both politically and in providing services. Nothing about working in clinics has changed my reproductive freedom agenda one iota.) The most important way to combat this particular issue, is to start the pre-abortion counseling privately, without parents or any of the “support network” present, and to ask bluntly, do you want to be here? Are you clear about your choice? I sent many teens home with workbooks and information but without an abortion, because they looked me in the eye and said “no. I’m here because XX wants me to have an abortion.” Liberals can tell that when a husband or father tries to pressure a woman into an abortion (or keep her from one), it’s not ok, but what if it is a well-meaning mother or aunt, who knows that raising the child will not be the idyllic fantasy some teens tend to imagine? It’s still critical that we say, think about it some more, and come back another day if you want. (Know, however, that your choices do get limited quickly…) Many clinics never have this conversation with their clients (teens or otherwise.) The bigger picture is that the most vehement and often the most effective antis are those that have had abortions and regret them- this might happen less often if those of us who worked in clinics were more cautious about confirming that they are clear in their decision. No need to go on at length about it or second-guess if someone’s sure, but confirming in a non-judgmental, supportive way is important. Fortunately, I do believe more and more clinics are doing things this way…

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