Breaking Down The Stigma Surrounding Teen Pregnancy
Worthless. Humiliated. Unwanted. That’s how the shame associated with the stigma of teen pregnancy can feel.
Power structures and societal moral attitudes punish mothers for choosing to have children at a young age by isolating them and labeling their decision as “wrong.” These beliefs prevent young mothers and their children from accessing the support they are entitled to.
Stigma is what happens when a human characteristic gets treated by a society or community as shameful or tainted.This shame surrounds teenagers exploring their sexuality and attempting to take control of their reproductive decisions.
While schools and communities try to scare pregnant teenagers away from abortion, they also don’t accept or support young parents. That’s what happened to Maddi Runkles, an 18-year-old pregnant mother who has been banned from walking at her Christian high school graduation this spring. The young mother has decided to keep her child, and while Heritage Academy says it is pleased she has chosen this path, the school is punishing her for “immoral” behavior.
Sexually active teenagers that find themselves pregnant cannot seem to win. They are caught in a double bind, judged for choosing abortion, but also judged for choosing parenthood. This is how Maddi Runkles has been treated, and it is how Natasha Vianna was treated before her. Unfortunately, this reaction is common for young parents.
So what does this stigma mean for a Massachusetts teen who is pregnant? A teen who is carrying a pregnancy to term? Or a teen who is parenting? The societal stigma isolates them, and only continues to subject teen parents and their children to moral judgment that make them feel shame, and ultimately harm them. This is why we must work to dismantle the stigma of teen pregnancy.
I was drawn to Mass Alliance on Teen Pregnancy (MATP) because of its commitment to eliminating the shame and stigma that adolescents can be bombarded with as they navigate their sexual and reproductive lives.
MATP is a part of the #noteenshame campaign that began in 2013 to draw attention to the voices of teen parents. It was founded by young mothers who have felt rejected due to their decisions to have their children at young ages. #noteenshame educates about the problems facing young parents while resisting the stereotypes that they are unworthy of help and incapable of leading successful lives.
MATP continues to be involved in a number of different destigmatizing projects. MATP advocates for policies that support young people no matter what reproductive choices they make. It also implements sexual education programs that promote respect and dignity, and offer young people the resources they need to lead healthy lives.
By discussing sex and reproductive options in a positive way we can help reduce the stigma facing adolescents and young parents over their sexual and reproductive decisions. So that instead of shame teens can feel pride. Support. Confidence. Love.
About the author:
Sarah Whedon is a member of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy Board of Directors. She teaches in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Simmons College. Sarah was founding director of the full-spectrum doula organization the Boston Doula Project, founding editor of the Pagan Families blog at Patheos.com, author of Birth on the Labyrinth Path: Sacred Embodiment in the Childbearing Year, and Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious History at Cherry Hill Seminary. Sarah’s teaching, research, and advocacy work center around topics of spirituality, feminism, and reproduction. She lives in the Boston area with her partner and their children.