In this country, about 31% of teen pregnancies end in abortion. According to a 2008 report by the Guttmacher Institute, “The reasons teens most frequently give for having an abortion are that they are concerned about how having a baby would change their lives, cannot afford a baby now and do not feel mature enough to raise a child.”
In New York City, where more than 40% of all pregnancies end in abortion (that’s almost double the national average), the abortion rate for teen pregnacies in 2010 was 61%. Among Non-Hispanic black teens, it’s even higher: a gruesome 70%.
One might easily conclude from all this that teens in New York City are quite aware of the costs of parenthood—monetary and otherwise—and choose abortion at a startling rate for just such reasons.
Which makes it curious that the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) has just designed a new “Teen Pregnancy Prevention campaign” to scare kids off having babies by warning them about the costs of parenthood. “The campaign features ads with hard-hitting facts about the money and time costs of parenting, and the negative consequences of having a child before you are ready.”
What’s troubling isn’t so much the fact that NYC wants to combat teen pregnancy; it’s the way they’ve chosen to do it. Take a look at their ads, which will be posted all over the city in subways and on bus shelters.
It would seem that if these ads have any effect at all, it would simply be to aggravate the most common reason for teen abortions: anxiety about the prospects of raising children.
I don’t think one necessarily needs to read these ads as pro-abortion propaganda. For one, using adorable kids to promote abortion doesn’t make for the most consistent messaging. (As Kathryn Lopez points out, Planned Parenthood has actually slammed the ads for creating “stigma, hostility, and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy and parenthood rather than offering alternative aspirations for young people.”) Still, in our culture, convincing teens to avoid having babies—even cute ones—and convincing teens to avoid pregnancy are two very different things. These ads are pretty clearly aimed at the former.
Which I guess is what I find so strange. It doesn’t take takes a genius to see that the problem in NYC isn’t babies, per se. Nor is it a problem of baby-crazed teenagers who are ignorant of the demands of parenthood and so rush in head-long. In fact, we’ve rendered ourselves all but incapable of addressing the real problem. The complete dissolution of any meaningful connection between sex, marriage, and babies has left us with no sensible way of addressing teen pregnancy.
We refuse to tell teenagers not to have sex, because the only thing our culture cherishes more than sexual license is avoiding the appearance of hypocrisy. And we won’t tell teenagers that sex belongs in marriage because we’ve emptied marriage of its significance to the point that it’s a hollow shell, less than a contract. (And besides, that’s totally judgmental, which is almost as bad as hypocrisy.) And so, when the dire social consequences of epidemic teen pregnancy can no longer be ignored, having absolved ourselves of any responsibility for the mess, we lay the blame in the one place it most obviously doesn’t belong. By portraying them as little bundles of life-sucking terror, we blame the babies.
Stephen White is a Fellow in the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.