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Coercion, exclusion, and the politics of teen motherhood

May 3, 2010

Via Jezebel, the truly horrific story of a pregnant teenager in Philadelphia who was coerced into having a late-term abortion.

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.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2010 5:14 PM

    This is truly horrifying. There is a huge amount of pressure on young/unwed/low ses/etc. moms to relinquish for adoption

    adding pressure to abort certainly makes it look like social engineering to me. This is sickening.

    • Jill permalink
      May 3, 2010 9:09 PM

      Thanks for that link, Limor. It’s amazing how much of adoption rhetoric is this only very thinly veiled story about how the “good” people need more babies.

      The article mentions The Girls Who Went Away, but I’d also definitely recommend Wake Up Little Susie by Rickie Solinger, about women who were more or less forced into giving up their babies conceived while they were unmarried. One really interesting point Solinger makes is about the profound racial disparity in how unmarried pregnant women were treated. In particular, White women ended up in maternity homes, and gave their babies up for adoption–White babies were, of course, a deeply-desired resource in the post-war era (and definitely today as well). Of course, today we have this narrative today about “good” (White) families “saving” Black babies from poverty.

  2. Carol Hammerstein permalink
    May 3, 2010 5:44 PM

    We’ve got to help our teens avoid early parenthood. We can’t do it by pressuring them to have abortions – that is outlandish. We can’t do it by stigmatizing teen parents. I was a teen mom myself (in my 40s now), and shaming is terribly harmful for the parents and their kids. I’m all for women having sexual agency, but we cannot expect teenage girls to protect themselves from the consequences of early parenting without our direction. We’ve got to protect them, as adults, because we know.

    • Jill permalink
      May 3, 2010 9:13 PM

      We definitely have let down teens (of all genders) with regard to access to appropriate, accurate, inclusive and sex-positive sex education, access to contraceptive and birth control options, and a culture that permits them to talk about, plan for, and enjoy safe sex. We as adults should provide all these things to young people, as well as respect and support for the decisions they ultimately make.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Lisa permalink
    May 3, 2010 10:51 PM

    Yes, yes and yes to everything said here! Thanks Jill for so succinctly summarizing the paradox in which teen girls are caught. We need better sex ed, better access to contraception, more support systems for young mothers, and most of all, we need to stop reproductive coercion.

  4. May 4, 2010 12:02 AM

    It’s amazing how much of adoption rhetoric is this only very thinly veiled story about how the “good” people need more babies.

    There is so much truth in that statement and it is something we never confront. How can we truly talk about choice when people are being forced to either abort or put their kids up for adoption? I think because this is happening to the most marginalized group of women that we ignore it.

  5. May 4, 2010 12:16 AM

    I agree 100% that we need to provide comprehensive sex ed and easy access to contraception not just for teens, but for everyone. There are obviously more ideal and less ideal circumstances or having a baby, but a less than ideal situation in no way justifies pressuring women (of any age) to either abort or relinquish. The ethical and compassionate thing to do is to help women parent. To offer them support and education. To give them real options that don’t involve regret and emotional trauma.

    • Carol Hammerstein permalink
      May 4, 2010 5:08 AM

      yes, once they are pregnant, the ethical and compassionate thing to do is to support their choice. Once they are parents, the ethical and compassionate thing to do is to help them parent. But the pain women suffer when they cannot give their children what they desperately want to give them (because they are too young), when they see their children suffer the realities of having adolescents as parents, this is also something we should protect them from — by preventing teen pregnancy in the first place.

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