'A mother is not a person to lean on, but a person to make leaning unnecessary'.
- Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Teen pregnancy is back in the news after OK! Magazine announced the pregnancy of Jamie Lynn Spears, the 16-year-old sister of Britney Spears, and went on to sell a record two million copies.
Pregnancy that occurs between puberty and age 19 is dubbed teen pregnancy. Teenage pregnancy generally refers to pregnancy in women who may not legally be adults, and this varies according to the law of the land.
Teenage mothers are physically, mentally, and emotionally not ready for parenthood. Statistics prove that young women aged 15 to 19 in under-developed and developing countries, die of complications from pregnancy and childbirth. Major international surveys show that babies born to very young mothers—those aged 14 and under- are 50 percent more likely to die, than children born to women in their twenties. Obstructed labor, the scourge of teenage mothers, results in increased risk of infant death and maternal death or disability. Young teens who indulge in careless, unprotected sex, are also prone to develop HIV/AIDS. Teenage pregnancy is an important issue, rated as high profile and high priority, world over.
Incidence in Developed Countries
In the US, teenage pregnancy is when an "under aged" girl becomes pregnant. In the UK it is pregnancy in a woman who is not yet 18 years old. An international ranking of countries where teenage pregnancy was devastating for mother and child has countries in the sub-Saharan Africa at the worst end and Sweden at the least end.
According to the United Nations' last comprehensive tally of G8 countries the highest teenage pregnancy rates were as follows:
US - 41.8 per 1,000 females
Russia - 28 per 1,000 females
U.K. - 26.8 per 1,000 females
Canada - 14.5 per 1,000 females
Germany - 11 per 1,000 females
France - 7.8 per 1,000 females
Italy - 6.7 per 1,000 females
Japan - 5.6 per 1,000 females
Teenagers in the West have more 'cultural permission' to begin their sex life earlier than their counterparts in Asia.
Popular culture and teen celebrities make it look as if teen pregnancy has gained acceptance in the West. Movies like 'Knocked Up' and 'Waitress', showcase teen pregnancies.
Celebrity moms including American Idol star Fantasia Barrino who became a mom at 17 and the now-pregnant Jamie Lynn Spears are setting new trends that are beginning to redefine motherhood.
'Gray's Anatomy' (America 's primetime TV medical drama) and 'Gossip Girl' (a popular American teen serial) have also projected teen pregnancy story lines.
According to behavioral scientists, rising teen pregnancy rates may also have to do with home life, where it is possible that casual sex is observed among single parents. With increasing number of families separating, single parents with their 'partners' and live-in relationships becoming commonplace, adolescents, who are at a vulnerable stage of life receive confusing signals about lifestyle and social behavior.
The Asian Scenario
In villages and among the labor class in urban areas in Asian countries like India, for instance, ignorant parents marry off their teenage daughters to men who are equally ignorant of family planning principles that result in teenage pregnancies.
Incidents of rape on minors and the rise of casual sex among teenagers are also related concerns as they lead to teen pregnancies. A WHO academic has recently branded unwanted teenage pregnancies following bouts of binge drinking, the 'greatest threat to mankind', because they contribute to the world's unsustainable population growth.
• Middle Class Morality
According to college counselors in India, unwanted teen pregnancies and subsequent abortions are caused by middle class parents with a misguided sense of morality. Strict parents refuse to awaken to the fact that when India announced its "open policy" to the world, an increased dose of sexuality came along with the economic prosperity via the entertainment media. Sex is still a dirty word for the older generation and discussing it at home or sex education in school is taboo.
• Too Much, Too Soon
Teenagers who leave home to stay in college hostels or rented rooms, go overboard in exploring their newly found freedom and hence unguarded premarital sex followed by teenage pregnancy are often a sad fallout. Since the Indian society still swears largely by arranged marriages, and also because it is near impossible to get the male partner who impregnated the girl to take responsibility for the teen mother and the child, teenage pregnancies in 'polite' circles mostly end in hushed abortions.
• Lack of Sex education
Most Indian teenagers have no prior knowledge of safe sex to deter them from risky sexual behavior.
They do not use any birth control measures like condoms when they have sexual intercourse. A study conducted on 400 college students of Mumbai showed that most of the sexually active girls started worrying about contraceptives only after 6 months of sexual activity.
It is a sad fact that teenagers don't realize that conception can happen even if actual penetration has not taken place, because the sperm that moves upwards from its presence in the external genital area can cause pregnancy.
The burden of child bearing and rearing at a very young age leaves a teenager physically and emotionally exhausted. Pregnant teenagers are known to have severe bouts of depression and the kids they raise face health problems as well as social maladjustments
In the developing countries, the absence of a comprehensive healthcare system coupled with social taboo, teen pregnancies lead to a high rate of Infant and Maternal Mortality Rate (IMMR). Fearing social ostracism, parents of teenage pregnant women force them to abort the child, often with the help of quacks or uneducated midwives in unhygienic conditions.
A high rate of perinatal mortality in poor and developing countries, particularly among the rural and urban poor is because the teenaged mother is under-nourished and pregnancy aggravates her already poor condition.
Lack of sufficient nutrition during pregnancy, not only affects the mother; it also affects the growth of the fetus and often leads to Very Low Birth Weight (VLBW) babies. Most girls who are already anemic have a rapid depletion of iron in their body during pregnancy. They are mostly housewives and do hard labor in the fields or households and rarely avail maternity services.
The severe shame and stigmatization, that made pregnant teens feel like they had committed a faux pas, has considerably lessened in recent years in the West. Though teen pregnancy has been made to appear fashionable, the ground reality is, adolescents are mentally unprepared to handle pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood. Almost often the male partner abandons the teenage mother who has to plod through life with her baby, without a decent education or a job.
Sometimes the child delivered by a teenage mother is dropped in dustbins or sewers or left behind in hospitals or temples or at charity homes because of an inadequate social security system. There are innumerable true life stories, often adapted in movies, to show how these abandoned children almost always experience an abused childhood and grow up to be anti-social elements. Pro-life organizations have stepped in to stem the rot and offer to take care of the teenaged pregnant mother till she delivers the baby and then arrange for the child's adoption.
Prevention holds the key
A US survey suggests that "abstinence only" programs launched initially to curb teenage pregnancy have fallen short; so, comprehensive sex education, including discussion of birth control may help reduce the phenomenon. Statistical data gleaned from a study of more than 1,700 unmarried, heterosexual teens between 15 and 19 years old showed that teenagers who received comprehensive sex education "were 60 percent less likely to report becoming pregnant or impregnating someone than those who received no sex education."
Increase in 'moral policing' whether it is at home, colleges or a public place has only proved to aggravate the issue. Continued sex education at home and in schools, beginning from the pre-teen stage, making adolescents understand their body at the first level and later stressing the role of abstinence and contraceptive methods like the use of condoms is a healthy option.
• "Growing Up" program
The "Growing Up" program, done by the Federation of Obstetric & Gynecological Societies of India (FOGSI) in partnership with Johnson & Johnson attempts to educate schoolgirls on menstruation, its myths and hygiene, the anatomy and functioning of the reproductive system, the value of good nutrition and exercise, problems of drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, and sexual abuse. The program has reached over 12 lakh girls in more than 50 cities all over India in the last 5 years.
• Sex Education: At home, in schools:
Adequate guidance from responsible adults is by far the best means to prevent teenage pregnancy. Recent researches have shown that an on going sex education imparted by parents to their children, beginning even before the adolescent stage, helps them to get a clear sense of what their parents' values are, and bonds parents and children together as they openly discuss about sex.
• Saying 'NO'
It is important to teach girls the consequences of hiding a pregnancy from elders until it is too late. With adequate female education, teenage girls can be made to understand that they need not consent to sex, if only to please their male companions. The ball is in their court, more often than not, with the exception of rape.
The recently released Hollywood movie Juno, projects a smart, white, middle class sixteen-year-old girl who decides against abortion, choosing to have a baby and an open adoption.
Rave reviews that the movie got don't mitigate the fact that pregnancy has a negative impact on a teenager's education, consequently on their future, the future of the child they beget and the future of the human society on the whole. Freedom of expression comes with a huge responsibility and not everyone appreciates this fact in our society.