Teenage pregnancy is one of the few issues that most people are on the same page about. In the United States at least, there is almost a universal consensus it seems that teenage pregnancy is a negative thing, and should be discouraged. The reasons given for this view are diverse.
Moralizers of various sorts — especially social conservatives — seem outraged by teenage pregnancy for mainly ideological reasons. As most teens are not married, teenage pregnancy is evidence of sex before marriage, and therefore sexual impurity. For moralizers, high rates of teenage pregnancy are a sign of a decadent, immoral society that has lost its way. On this view, the harm is not teenage pregnancy really: it is premarital sex. The issue of teenage pregnancy is just a proxy through which the moralizers push their brand of sexual mores. Needless to say, this approach to teenage pregnancy is not one I find at all compelling.
The next reason teenage pregnancy is so opposed is economic. Teenage mothers, it is said, fare poorly for the rest of their lives. They are less likely and able to get an education, face limited job possibilities, and so on. From this, people conclude that teenage pregnancy causes these negative economic outcomes, and that it therefore should be discouraged. This conclusion also serves the ideological purposes of those who wish to deflect away from the high rates of poverty in the U.S. by attributing those rates to the prior bad decisions of the impoverished.
This raises an interesting empirical question though: does teenage mothering actually have negative economic consequences for those who undertake it? It might seem obvious that it does, but according to a recent study, the answer is actually no. When comparing teen mothers with similarly situated teens that had miscarriages, the researchers found only a small and short-lived difference in economic consequences. Comparisons of teen mothers with their non-mothering sisters produced similar results.1
The reason teenage mothers end up poorer than average is because they are already poorer and therefore on a poorer economic trajectory. That is, high rates of teenage pregnancy are a feature of poverty and inequality, not a cause of it. Those who wind up as teenage mothers are, for the most part, already on track for poorer economic outcomes. This connection between high inequality and high rates of teenage pregnancy is observable among American states and internationally. For those worried about teenage pregnancy and poverty, it turns out that tackling poverty requires actually tackling poverty: teenage pregnancy is only a symptom.
So, the two main discussions people have about the ills of teenage pregnancy are not very convincing. The moralizing approach appeals to a certain social conservative faction in the country, but not to those who have different views on sexual morality. The economic approach mixes up causation and correlation, and falls apart when confronted with empirical data.
However, there is one reason to be worried about teenage pregnancy that does not rely on either of the two main approaches: personal autonomy. The possibility of children parents poses a difficult problem for personal autonomy. Having a child has profound consequences for the rest of someone’s life. At age 15, we can reasonably think a person is not ready to fully appreciate those consequences, and make a fully-informed — and therefore free — choice.
Discouraging teenage pregnancy then can be justified on the same grounds that we discourage dropping out of high school. Both decisions are free and autonomous in some sense, but many of the kids making such decisions lack the kind of appreciation for their consequences necessary to make them intelligently. This approach to teenage pregnancy sharply differs from the two above. It does not rely upon sexual shaming or specious economic arguments, and it centers the autonomy interests of the potential parents. If we are going to make sense of discouraging teenage pregnancy, it should probably be on those grounds.
1 I use “sister” and “mother” here because that is the language used in the study. It is also difficult to talk about “the parent that gives birth” in short, gender-neutral ways that also avoid ambiguity.