Teen Pregnancy Isn’t the Problem

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One recent evening, I shook a bottle of hot sauce over my burger and watched the news from the kitchen table.

Popular that night was the story of a set of New York City schools that are part of a pilot program in which female students who are 14 and up can access Plan B, the emergency contraceptive also called “the morning-after pill.”

The program was part of a media hullabaloo, partly because of what the pill is used for, partly because of how young the girls are who can participate in the program and partly because – according to some sources – if a child’s parents consent to her participation in the program, she can access the pill later and nobody has to tell her parents she did.

A man on the TV turned hopeful eyes toward the crowd in front of him and from behind a podium, he spoke about the Plan B program. It provides a solution, he said, to a problem that has lifelong consequences: teen pregnancy.


I shook my head while I ate my burger and thought about what he said.

Indeed, a baby inside anyone – let alone a teenager – has a big impact on all involved for the rest of their lives. But according to the CDC, only half of teen moms receive high school diplomas. Teen moms also are more likely low achievers, in poor health, in jail and unemployed than their same-age peers who didn’t give birth as adolescents. And their children statistically don’t fare well, either.

Which is why what I am about to write probably won’t sit well with people like the guy behind the podium:

Teen pregnancy isn’t the problem.

It’s a consequence. The problem is what the world around teens says to them about sex.

The world says sex is primarily for pleasure. That sex doesn’t have to be for unity or procreation. That everybody’s doing it. That there is something wrong with you if you aren’t.

The world says sex is just a bodily function, like eating or breathing. That the quest for sexual compatibility ought to be paramount in the search for a spouse. That it isn’t a good idea to marry somebody who hasn’t proven he or she can satisfy you sexually.

The world tells us to act on all our urges as soon as possible. To get what we want, when we want it, always. To control our fertility instead of ourselves if we aren’t prepared to become parents.

The morning-after pill can’t solve this. The morning-after pill is part of this. It says the same stuff about sex that the world says. And it says it loudly.

Which is why it’s time to get louder than the world.

It’s time to use our lives to tell the world sex is primarily for procreation and unity. That we aren’t supposed to marry people because it feels good to have sex with them, but to create a pleasurable sexual relationship with the person to whom we are married. That people of all ages can (and do) choose chastity, and there’s nothing wrong with them if they do.

We have to tell the world (and our kids) that like author Edward Sri says, God designed the sexual urge “to orient us toward another person,” not toward what we can get out of him or her. That like Sister Helena Burns says, premarital sex “is training for the opposite of marriage.”

We have to tell the world that marriage is supposed to result in the destruction of self absorption. That God wouldn’t expect us to master our appetites if mastering our appetites wasn’t a good idea. That patience is better marriage prep than sex is. That pregnancy frankly isn’t ever the problem.

If we don’t say it, nobody will. And if nobody says it, the culture that surrounds us will keep trying to solve this problem with the stuff that’s part of it (like the morning-after pill).

Arleen Spenceley

Arleen Spenceley

Arleen Spenceley is author of the book Chastity Is For Lovers: Single, Happy, and (Still) a Virgin (Ave Maria Press, 2014). She has a master's degree in rehabilitation and mental health counseling from the University of South Florida and a bachelor's degree in journalism from the same university. She works as a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, and blogs at arleenspenceley.com.

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38 thoughts on “Teen Pregnancy Isn’t the Problem”

  1. Avatar

    Arleen – Your view of the purpose of sex is what I call comprehensive sex education. If the world would only embrace your view, which is the view of our Catholic faith, so many problems would be solved. If we could only find a way to convince people that the Catholic view of sexuality is good for them, we could make some real progress in reducing abortion, STD’s, and divorces.

    Thank you for an excellent post. Your message is very timely.

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    I think it might be worth it to point out that we are still failing these girls and their children.

    While we should be proclaiming more comprehensive view of sex whenever we can, we should also be working just as hard to make sure that a child isn’t destined to become one of these statistics because a teenage mother made a bad decision or had someone else’s bad decision forced upon them.

    Choosing life, no matter how that life came to be, should never be a reason to live in unnessecary, uneducated, dependent poverty. Too many women and young girls choose abortion not out of hate, vengance, evil, or a calous disregard for responsibility, but because they think they are making a merciful choice when such a life is seen as their only option.

    How many lives could be saved if – while teaching “new” ideologies about sex – we were ensuring that no one would choose to end a life because they didn’t where they would live, what they would eat or who would protect them?

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      Nice points, Molly. I’m of the opinion we have to do both: revamp sex ed so as to result in fewer people becoming parents who aren’t prepared for it and help the people who wind up in that position.

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      We need to do a better job of promoting adoption. Too many people are raising kids on welfare, having babies they can’t take care of. The dad is nowhere to be found. This hurts the economy, as does divorce (another cause of women going on welfare). There are more adoption options available now than ever before. The young woman can visit her child (“open adoption”) while she finishes her education and starts on her career. Then the next time she gets pregnant will be after marriage and the baby will grow up with a mom AND a dad. And because the adoption was open, her new kids can meet their big brother or big sister. All kids will grow up in a two parent home with either their biological parents, or a mom and dad in a similar family structure. The parents will have good jobs and we can cut welfare costs significantly and improve the economy because there will be more tax-paying workers.

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    I’m not sure from your comment whether you support legalized abortion or not, but let me just say that I don’t think we’re doing enough to help women choose life for their unborn child. It isn’t enough to make abortion illegal. We also need to find ways to help women avoid getting in crisis pregnancy situations in the first place. If a woman is already in a crisis pregnancy situation, we need to do more to give her the assistance she needs to carry the child to term, and care for the child after it’s born. We can’t just tell her “no abortion for you!” and then not help her carry the child to term and care for it after it’s born.

    Here’s an idea: Why don’t we take the millions of dollars of tax payer’s money that we’re donating each year to Planned Parenthood and channel it to places that provide abstinence education that will help women avoid unwanted pregnancies, and to crisis pregnancy centers that provide emotional and material support for women who are already in crisis pregnancy situations?

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      Paul – You’re totally right (and I’m not for legalized abortion). Sadly, I also know too many pro-life advocates that get so wrapped up in the legality, funding the politcal side and standing in protest lines that they forget that equal time and money should still be going to supporting our crisis centers so that, while we fight the legality, we are also fighting (the perceived) notion of necessity!

      We also need to remember that a “crisis pregnancy” can happen to any woman at any point in life. Financial and health concerns are not only driving motivators for the young and alone!

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    States that prescribe abstinence-only sex education programs in public schools have significantly higher teenage pregnancy and birth rates than states with more comprehensive sex education programs, researchers from the University of Georgia have determined.

    The researchers looked at teen pregnancy and birth data from 48 U.S. states to evaluate the effectiveness of those states’ approaches to sex education, as prescribed by local laws and policies.

    “Our analysis adds to the overwhelming evidence indicating that abstinence-only education does not reduce teen pregnancy rates,” said Kathrin Stanger-Hall, assistant professor of plant biology and biological sciences in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.


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      I wonder if these higher rates are because the areas that promote abstitence only are less likely to encourage teenage girls to go on birth control on their first periods and have less access to barrier and contraceptive method AND promote responsibility of created life( no plan B pills or abortions) – this would explain the possibility of why the ratio of teens having sex could equal, though the results would varry greatly.

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        There’s this book called “Are You Waiting for the One?” in which the author makes a great point re: sex and contraception:

        “On its invention fifty years ago, the birth-control pill was hailed as a great advance over barrier methods, precisely because a woman did not have to negotiate its use with a sexual partner. Now the sense is that a once-a-day pill is too much trouble; people need ‘fool-proof contraceptives that require almost no thought or action.’ The obvious problem with this is that where contraception is foolproof and thoughtless, sex will be too. Is that really what any of us wants? Is that really compatible with Christian notions of what sex and marriage and human life itself are really all about?”

        I think this point, and your point, provide evidence of what really needs to change (in my opinion): Neither camp does a great job actually telling the truth about sex. The abstinence-only camp doesn’t actually talk about sex much (if at all), and the pro-contraception camp teaches (implicitly, when not explicitly) that sex can be thoughtless, and that it’s primarily for pleasure. In one way or another, the recipients of either education are misled.

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      It would be interesting to know how the abstinence-only sex education programs approached the subject. Maybe they aren’t teaching it properly. I’ve heard of abstinence-only sex ed programs that did nothing more than tell kids that they shouldn’t have sex before marriage, without explaining why.

      Another challenge in teaching abstinence is that we live in a sex-saturated culture. Sexuality is plastered everywhere you look: on TV, in the movies, on magazine covers in the checkout counters at grocery stores. Is it any wonder why kids fail to abstain when they’re bombarded with the message that anyone can have sex, as long as they “take precautions”. Not only that, but abstinence is almost a taboo in our culture. Being a virgin is looked at as “uncool”. Most parents have had premarital sex. What do you think the chances are that they’ll encourage their kids to abstain?

      So what are we to do? Throw up our hands and say “It’s no use. Kids are going to have sex anyway. Let’s just give them artificial contraception.”? That would be a cop out. We have to teach them what is right, regardless of what most people are doing. The cycle must be broken if we are ever going to pull ourselves up out of the immoral quagmire this society is in.

    3. Avatar

      Well, many of those states are more likely to have their teens marry young. So “teen pregnancy” is a false statistic; we should really be looking at out-of-wedlock births. They are at 40% nationwide and 72.5% among African Americans. Also, abortion rates are higher in blue states, so they will not be having as many births because people are aborting their babies (obviously). Either surgical or chemical (pills), abortion rates are high. STD rates are also through the roof in blue states like New York and California.

      Another problem, I think a bigger issue, is they aren’t telling the kids why not to have sex before marriage. And they are using the “used gum” analogy which is very damaging to sexual abuse victims and people who got started because they didn’t know any better. They need to learn the forgiveness of Christ, that it is possible to change one’s life. Just because you slept with one person doesn’t mean you have to continue living a promiscuous lifestyle.

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    I have been married 24 years, but have learned so much about the true purpose of sex in the last four years since joining the Catholic Church. Today’s culture has totally missed the purpose of sex, and has been since the 1950’s. That beng said, I think one big failing in today’s sex. ed. classes is the tendency to emphasize the physical aspects over the emotional. Sex is about sharing all of one’s self – heart, soul and body. It is the ultimate reflection of our relationship with God! If you are just looking at in terms of physicality, you miss SO much. As the wonderful Christopher West puts it in his book “Theology of the Body for Beginners”, ” God created us male and female so we could image his love be becoming a sincere gift to one another….In this way, sexual love becomes an earthly image …of the inner life of the Trinity.” If sex is an image of God’s love for us, casual, non-marital sex cheapen both us and our relationship with God. We should remain celibate until marriage for this reason, not out of pregnancy or image fears.

      1. Avatar

        If only I could find a way to bottle Arleen and Ginny and sprinkle them on women all over the world. You ladies rock! 🙂

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      When I first learned about the Catholic teaching on sex, it was presented as “Don’t to this–or else!” “Why? Because we say so.” Very fear-based and threatening. Needless to say, I though the Catholic Church was run by a bunch of celibate old men who just hated sex and disregarded it.

      We didn’t find Christopher West’s view of Theology of the Body very helpful, though. I think he idealizes sex a bit too much. If sex is an image of God’s love, then it follows that extended periods of abstinence are extended periods without this image of God’s love in a marriage. When struggling with this, we didn’t find West’s views to be “Good News” at all.

      I don’t think you can understand Theology of the Body without understanding Love and Responsibility, JPII’s earlier work on the subject. Love and Responsibility is a justification of Catholic teaching based on psychology, anthropology, and basic morality. It is the why behind the what. Catholic teaching is not idealistic, but realistic. Understanding that following Catholic teaching was the only way we could truly satisfy our natural desires is what made it “click” for us.

  6. Avatar

    (1) I am assuming we are talking about education on human sexuality in “the public schools.” What works? From advocates for youth: “Substantial evidence of the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education has recently emerged. Comprehensive sex education addresses both abstinence and age-appropriate, medically accurate information about contraception. Comprehensive sex education is also developmentally appropriate, introducing information on relationships, decision-making, assertiveness, and skill building to resist social/peer pressure, depending on grade-level.
    (2) In faith based -schools, you can teach what you want….

    1. Avatar

      Advocates for Youth’s findings ARE indicative of evidence that public schools’ current curriculum for comprehensive sex ed (generally speaking) is effective for teaching kids about sex. But whose perspective of sex does it effectively teach?

      It works, in other words, but only insofar as the goal is for kids to live like sex is what the curriculum says sex is. The points people like Paul and Molly make point to what we who are practicing Roman Catholics believe: what kids learn in public schools’ comprehensive sex ed classes doesn’t align with what the Church teaches about sex.

      That is not to say public schools are obligated to teach what the church teaches (I don’t think they are, and I think fighting to force them to is a waste of time). But it’s also not to say that abstinence only sex ed necessarily aligns much better with what the church teaches, either. What the church teaches is of such depth that if we can conclude that “just tell kids not to have sex” is good sex ed, we’re probably not being honest with ourselves.

      But ultimately, when I talk about abstinence only versus comprehensive sex ed, what I find more important than what kids learn in schools is what they learn at home and in church. And I think what they learn at home and in church could use to be more comprehensive than it was for most of my generation.

    2. Avatar

      Comprehensive sex ed is supposed to cover abstinence, but it doesn’t. It talks about feeling “ready”… whatever that means, and you don’t have to before you’re “ready”… a little pressure from a boy/girlfriend and a threat of breakup and I bet they’ll end up “ready” because they’re afraid to be alone.

      What works? Are you serious? Divorce rates and STD rates are through the roof. Out of wedlock birth rates are embarrassingly high. Just because someone didn’t get pregnant at 15 doesn’t mean success. Our country is in a huge mess of narcissism and these sex ed programs that are about “feeling” are not helping anyone. Too many kids grow up in broken homes and it’s sad.

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    This post and these comments are like a breath of fresh air! After college, I did a year of service with an amazing organization called Generation Life, which allows young people to speak to young people about building a culture of life. The idea is that by educating students on both the pro-life and chastity messages, it’s possible to address and, ideally, eliminate abortion at its root cause–reading this article, I was totally with you, Arleen.

    During my time as a chastity speaker, I learned so much about JPII’s writing and saw how important it is to be real when you evangelize, not vague or up on a pedestal. It’s not about creating a sense of fear when it comes to sex, I realized (love casts out fear, after all, but a sense of reverence and appreciation for something so good and so holy. It involves appeals to logic and natural law (the Church already does this!), rather than just general, religiously-based arguments, and showing your own scars while emphasizing that it’s never too late to start over. “Comprehensive sex education, JPII style…” I’ve never heard that term, but it captures how I feel exactly, and I think I’ll have to adopt it!

  8. Avatar

    Great post Arleen! I work on a school health advisory council for my school district. For the last two years, we have debated implementing a public school sex education program. The opponents often are “either/or” mindsets. Either you are for secular comprehensive programs or you are for backwoods ho-bunk abstinence only. When it comes down to it, I promote comprehensive sex education led by parents. I really don’t want public schools teaching my children what they think sex is.

    There is a huge problem with sexual promiscuity including unwed pregnancies and STDs, but the answer to have safe sex really only masks the underlying problems.

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      Safe sex doesn’t exist. Condoms break a lot of the time. People can and do get pregnant on the Pill. 54% of abortions are now from people who used birth control, rather than people who forgot or didn’t have access… it broke the halfway mark a couple years ago.

  9. Pingback: Teen Pregnancy Isn’t the Problem « Random Hash

  10. Avatar

    High-school graduation statistics are unreliable anyway, since the percentage who got o college exceeds the percentage who graduate from high school — in other words, many are probably recorded as dropouts who in fact graduate late or by an alternative method, and then go on to college.

  11. Avatar

    I have to say, as I was reading through this article, I think there’s another, very large problem that needs to be addressed. After your introduction, I think we could have gone a very different direction, one that I think everyone, on both sides ought to be able to agree on.

    We must answer the question, WHY do teen moms have higher drop-out rates? Why are they more often in Jail or unemployed? Why do we not as a society, take better care of these girls? Why is having a baby considered a punishment? If we see a troubled situation, a girl at risk, yes, it would be better to avoid the situation, but we cannot ignore the present generation for a generation that is not yet present. (I know that was in one of the social encyclicals).

    I think we also need to holistically address why having a baby as a teenager seems to have all of these terrible after-effects. We have many, many couples in this country searching for a child due to infertility. We have many girls in trouble. We MUST also work to care for the girls who are pregnant NOW…

    We have a number of mothers in our parish, who went down that road as teenagers, and tell me they would have given ANYTHING for one of the old-fashioned resident schools where they could have gotten away, gotten themselves straightened out, and put their life back in order. I think in our pro-life cause, we sometimes forget the mothers. In our rush to protect the baby, we can never let that get in the way of working to help the child’s mother!!!

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      We need to have better adoption promotion. These girls have no way to care for themselves, let alone a baby. If she is being threatened or sexually abused, it needs to be reported to the police, not covered up by pills or abortions. Have pregnancy safe houses and career counseling available. Get them part-time jobs and send them back to school so they can support themselves.

  12. Pingback: “Teen Pregnancy Isn’t the Problem.” | Arleen Spenceley

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