Coercion, exclusion, and the politics of teen motherhood
When social workers discovered that the sixteen-year-old mother of one was pregnant again, she was 22 weeks along. According to her foster mother and birth mother, she eagerly anticipated her second child, chatting to her one-year-old about her new baby brother, picking out his name. After a visit from a social worker, who had previously threatened to remove her child for failure to keep her in daycare, the teen mom–in tears after the meeting–became dead-set on abortion. Her foster mother claims the social worker coerced the girl with loss of custody of one or both of her children unless she had an abortion.
The girl’s birth mother refused to consent to an abortion for her daughter. The Department of Human Services got a court order to override the refusal. Pennsylvania legally prohibits abortions after the first trimester; her social worker took her out of school for an abortion in New Jersey.
It’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, as you may know. I hope this isn’t what the organizers had in mind, but, as Renee at Womanist Musings points out, this is not a novel situation to too many poor women, disabled women, women of color, and women at the many intersections of those identities.
Nor is it apparently a novel situation for too many teen mothers in Philadelphia. The Daily News reports:
Between September 2006 and March 31, Schwarz said, 335 minors under DHS care became pregnant. Of those, 119 resulted in abortions. Of those abortions, 54 were done by judge’s order. Eight of the abortions were performed out of state.Teenage women are really stuck. Stuck in a culture that sexualizes them, but refuses to allow them sexual agency. That prohibits them from planning for sex–safe sex!–or risk being called a slut. That denies them the right to control their own reproductive care, and forces them to bear the consequences of that denial.
They’re stuck in a political discourse that sees them only as abominations, willfully destructive of a carefully-kept social fabric. Wanton breeders, stupid whores, naive children, usually all at once.
They–and all marginalized mothers–are stuck in a political system that is deeply obsessed with allocating care of children to a shrouded private sphere where unpaid female labor ensures that public expenditures go anywhere but to poor families. Including, of course, to wealthy families. They’re stuck in a political system that privileges and rewards certain kinds of families. Not families like theirs.
There isn’t a lot of talk out there about how to ensure that teen mothers have the best chances possible to raise their children, and to have access to the resources they need to develop as mothers, students, workers and citizens. There is a lot of hand-wringing about welfare, teenage sexuality, poverty, education, bad examples, and, well, welfare again. The only “solution” to teen pregnancy we seem to manage is to stop it by making it so terribly hard that no teen would ever think twice about sex. That’s not working particularly well.
There is a cost of motherhood to all women. Its burden is heavier by magnitudes in many ways for marginalized women. Rather than treating these costs as morally neutral results of biology, we need to recall how very steadfastly they are constructed and fortified in public debate, legal and political action, and social life. We need different solutions–ones that treat women as competent moral agents capable of making the best decisions about their bodies and their families.
These solutions uncover some hard realities about the structure of our culture, about the sexism, racism, classism that pervade and color how we constitute a “social problem.” They demand a total reconceptualization of the family, of sexual agency and body autonomy, of women, of work. Condoms in bathroom stalls and nurses offices aren’t a bad start, but they’re barely a step in the right direction, and coerced abortions–coercive reproductive health care of any kind–are nowhere on that path.