It’s been two weeks since the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) launched its teen pregnancy campaign. Though the agency has made some small tweaks to the campaign in response to the significant backlash that has surrounded it, it remains hugely problematic.
The campaign immediately has drawn intense criticism from activists, and that backlash has gotten significant media coverage. For instance, reproductive justice activists in New York launched the No Stigma, No Shame campaign. (View a Storify of the media response to that campaign here.) The Bloomberg administration has yet to admit defeat, but the HRA has made subtle changes to the campaign, seemingly in response to the backlash. According to the Times, the SMS game I wrote about previously for RH Reality Check has been edited. In the exchange about Anaya, the pregnant teen character who is bullied at the prom, she is no longer called a “fat loser”—now she’s just called a “loser.”
Since my first article on the campaign was published, I’ve received a few additional text messages from the SMS bot. A few days into the firestorm, I received this:
A week later, I received another random text from the SMS bot, this time about premature ejaculation. The texts seemed strangely timed, and I got the impression that these new texts were sent out in response to media pressure about the campaign. Sending out a few relevant facts about pregnancy prevention is nice—but it does not negate the fact that the campaign is rooted in shame and stigma.
Meanwhile, the campaign’s ads can be seen all over public transportation in New York City.
Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Richard Reeves was one of the few self-identified liberals to publicly defend the campaign. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Reeves argued that shame is a necessary tool: “[L]iberals should think twice: shame is an essential ingredient of a healthy society, particularly a liberal one. It acts as a form of moral regulation, or social ‘nudge,’ encouraging good behavior while guarding individual freedom.” He goes on to cite examples of how shame can be used to discourage drunk driving or smoking. “Teenage pregnancy qualifies for some ‘moral disapprobation.’ It is a bad choice, for the parents, children and society,” he wrote, quoting John Stuart Mill.
It’s abhorrent to compare the decision to become a teen parent to drunk driving, which is not only illegal, but also directly puts the lives of innocent bystanders at risk. Shame has been used to address both issues, but they are not morally equivalent. At least Reeves is honest in one way: He acknowledges that shame tactics have negative consequences on teen parents.
But there’s an assumption in Reeves’ op-ed—and in the campaign—that teen parenthood isn’t already incredibly stigmatized. Teen parenthood is not like smoking, which has been glorified and glamorized through decades of cigarette ads and popular culture. Gloria Malone, a teen mom and blogger who was brave enough to go on The O’Reilly Factor to talk about the campaign and wrote pieces about it for RHRC and the New York Times, is one of many teen moms who’ve spoken out about the stigma and lack of support they faced. “Some people argue that these ads are a fresh approach to dealing with the problem of teenage pregnancy. But I can tell you that there’s nothing innovative about them. All they do is take the insults and stereotypes directed at teenage parents every day, and post them up around the city,” she wrote in the Times.
And that’s where we really must question the city’s decision to spend $400,000 on this campaign. Even if we believe, as Reeves does, that stigma is an effective or legitimate method of prevention, where’s the evidence that teens aren’t already getting that message?
Obviously I don’t think stigma works, nor do I even think prevention is the right goal, when it comes to teen parenting. Helping teens avoid unwanted pregnancy? Sure. But when it comes to teen parents, I think we should be investing money in making sure they have the resources they need to thrive. Further promoting stigma only makes those resources harder to reach, as Malone points out in her Times article: “[A]fter I had my daughter, my high school guidance counselor refused to see me and help me with my applications. She never expected me to graduate. Most people, even within my family, assumed I wouldn’t amount to anything and would be dependent on government assistance for the rest of my life.”
Teen parents don’t have to end up in poverty, and there’s nothing inherently immoral about parenting at any age. The problem isn’t teen parents, it’s the social and economic conditions that make it impossible to juggle parenting and a career. Those are things we as a society have control over, and improving them will help everyone, including parents of any age.