But both sides of this argument have a lot of common ground. Everyone agrees that teen pregnancy is bad, because having a baby makes it harder for young girls to escape the cycle of poverty, and being raised in that poverty is hard on a child.
It turns out that we're wrong about this — both sides.
Teen moms aren't poor because they have babies. They have babies because they're poor.
As Matthew Yglesias explains over at Slate, a new study shows
that “being on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and that poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory.” In other words, it is a mistake to leap from the observation that women who gave birth as teenagers are poor to the view that they’re poor because they gave birth. Lexus owners are much richer than the average American, but that doesn’t mean the average person can get ahead by buying a Lexus. Women with better economic opportunities tend to do a good job of avoiding childbirth.
Another interesting thing the study noted is that over their lifetimes, poor women who were teenage mothers tend not to do much worse financially than their sisters who avoided having children while teens.
This turns conventional wisdom on its head. When we preach to poor teenage girls that having sex and getting pregnant will ruin their lives, we sound like clueless dumbasses who don't get how tough their lives are already, or that they see proof every day that it will not ruin their lives.
As some of the commenters over at Feministe pointed out, being a mother is pleasurable and fulfilling (even if it is also very tough) and a signifier, especially if one has happy, healthy kids, that she is an adult. If you already know that you're not going to have great financial success in life, why not aim for being a good mom?
I still think there are many excellent reasons to put off having a kid until you've got a stable job and a stable relationship. But if we really want to reduce the rates of teen pregnancy, it sounds like the approaches of "keep your legs shut" or "use a condom" are much less effective than "Look, you have these things to look forward to and there's time for kids later."
Of course, if we can't honestly say to Tennessee's poor teens, "Yes, you have a reasonable shot at this job or that one," then I guess we can continue to fight about abstinence vs. safe sex. But I can't help but wish we'd address the underlying issue of poverty instead.