Passive Pregnancy

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Like Dana Stevens, I was struck by the fact that Elizabeth Cousins, the 16-year-old single mother in this New York Times slideshow, decided against abortion because her friends told her this could be her last chance to get pregnant. (Her daughter is 19 months, which makes Cousins either 14 or a young 15 when she conceived.) Explains Cousins:

I didn’t want no baby at first. And then when it happened, I thought about abortion. But people was telling me, ‘That could be your only chance. It’s not guaranteed that you could have another one.’ So I was like, ohmygod, that’s true. It’s like this could be my first and my last kid. 

Since when did 15 become the new 38? Cousins seems to otherwise have a fairly good head on her shoulders–she’s managed to stay in school and talks about how she absolutely does not want another child until she’s gotten more education and is settled down and married. Still, it seems like she could have benefited from some thorough sex education or at the very least an adult who could give her realistic and accurate answers to questions like: I’m 15–is this my last chance to have a baby?

But something else the teenager said rattled me even more. At the end of the slideshow, Cousins describes putting herself in her mother’s place and imagining her daughter as a teen mother:

I picture her being a teenager, you know, ‘Mommy, I’m pregnant.’ I felt real nervous, like, wow, she can do that, she might do that, that might happen. ‘Cause it happened to me. 

Cousins doesn’t seem to think that would be an ideal path for her daughter and yet pay attention to the language she uses–“that might happen” and “it happened to me”–as if it is an outcome she would be powerless to affect.

This sort of passive language about teen parenthood isn’t unusual. The phrase “found herself pregnant” comes up a lot in narratives of single mothers. Even the most common description–“she became pregnant”–is a passive construction, unmoored from the actual procreative act that explains it. Now, obviously, women who become pregnant as a result of rape are truly inactive participants in the act. But for the majority of teen parents, pregnancy didn’t just “happen.”

Conservatives have helped to encourage the passive mentality with relentless attacks on family planning and labeling Planned Parenthood the seat of “the abortion industry.” The alternative to planned parenthood, of course, is waiting to discover if, whoops!, you’ve been graced with a baby. Liberals haven’t helped either, using passive language to avoid focusing blame on young parents. This is not an argument for condemning premarital sex or pointing fingers at young mothers (and fathers). But there’s a lot of space in-between shaming sexually-active teenagers and pretending that there’s no agency involved in creating a baby. As long as parents and kids continue to treat pregnancy as something that can’t be prevented, teen birth rates will stay stubbornly high.

P.S. It’s not just teenagers. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy recently surveyed men and women 18-29 about their sexual behavior and knowledge, and found passivity among that age group as well. 43% agreed with the statement: “I don’t want to get (my partner) pregnant but if it happens, it happens.”

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