Research: Teen pregnancy

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The moral panic over teenage pregnancy is sustained by myths and pseudoscience.


  • Duncan, S. (2007). "What's the problem with teenage parents? And what's the problem with policy?," Critical Social Policy, 27, 307–334.
    "The influential UNICEF report Teenage Births in Rich Nations claims that:
    . . . giving birth as a teenager is believed to be bad for the young mother because the statistics suggest that she is much more likely to drop out of school, to have low or no qualifications, to be unemployed or low paid, to grow up without a father, to become a victim of neglect and abuse, to do less well at school, to become involved in crime, use drugs and alcohol. (UNICEF, 2003: 3)
    There are two major problems . First, studies do not always compare like with like; ascribing causal effects to teenage motherhood is pretty meaningless if we compare teen mothers with all mothers, rather than those of a similar age and background. Secondly, linked to this, statistical analysis needs to control for ‘selection effects’. This is a variant of the correlation problem so beloved in statistical textbooks. Variable X may be highly correlated with ‘dependent’ variable Y, but this does not mean that X causes Y; rather both may be caused by an unacknowledged variable A. In this case becoming a young mother may not cause the poor outcomes – in terms of education, employment and income – experienced by many teenage mothers; rather both young motherhood, and poor outcomes, may be caused by pre-pregnancy social disadvantage. In this sense social disadvantage may ‘select’ particular young women, and men, to become teenage parents, and this disadvantage will continue post pregnancy. Teenage parenting may therefore be a part of social disadvantage, rather than its cause. [...]
    In fact there has been a tradition of statistical studies that do try to take account of these selection effects. This type of research began in the USA, and found that the social outcome effects of mother’s age at birth were very small, or as Saul Hoffman (1998: 237) put it in his systematic review of the US research ‘often essentially zero’. Indeed, by their mid/late 20s teenage mothers in the USA did better than miscarrying teenagers with regard to employment and income and this meant, ironically, that government spending would have increased if they had not become young mothers (Geronimus, 1997). [...]
    Since the publication of the SEU report, however, a number of British studies have taken up the ‘natural experiment’ approach, with the same results as in the USA. John Ermisch and David Pevalin (2003), using the British Cohort Study to assess differences between miscarrying and successful teenage pregnancies, found that teen birth has little impact upon qualifications, employment or earnings by 30 years of age. While teenage mothers’ partners were more likely to be poorly qualified or unemployed, and this then impacted on the mothers’, and their children’s, standard of living, this is also akin to a selection effect. In itself, age of birth has little effect. A complementary study using British Household Panel data to follow teenage mothers over time came to similar conclusions (Ermisch, 2003), as does a study by Denise Hawkes (2004) on twins, where only one became a teenage mother. Finally, Karen Robson and Richard Berthoud (2003) used the Labour Force Survey to assess the link between high rates of poverty and high rates of teenage fertility among minority ethnic groups, particularly for the extreme case of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis where both variables are particularly high. They concluded that teen birth has little effect on future poverty, and does not lead to any further disadvantage beyond that experienced by the ethnic group as a whole. [...]
    What these qualitative studies find is that many mothers express positive attitudes to motherhood, and describe how motherhood has made them feel stronger, more competent, more connected to family and society, and more responsible. Resilience in the face of constraints and stigma, based on a belief in the moral worth of being a mother, is one overriding theme (Graham and McDermott, 2005). For some, this has given the impetus to change direction, or build on existing resources, so as to take up education, training and employment (see Graham and McDermott, 2005 for review). [...]
    Not surprisingly, therefore, two of the themes identified in a meta-synthesis of US qualitative studies undertaken during the 1990s are ‘Motherhood as positively transforming’ and ‘Baby as stabilizing influence’ (Clemmens, 2003)."
  • Weiss, Rich (2007). "Study Debunks Theory On Teen Sex, Delinquency," The Washington Post, November 11, page A03.
    "In another example, Arline Geronimus, a University of Michigan professor of health behavior who is now a fellow at Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study, knew that babies born to teenagers are more likely to die in their first year of life than those born to older women.
    "But that is an apples-to-oranges comparison," she said. In New York City, for example, far more teen mothers live in Harlem than on the Upper East Side, she said, and "there are a lot of differences between those groups."
    So Geronimus looked more closely and got a different answer.
    "If you compare Harlem teen moms to Harlem older moms, you find that the kids of the teen moms are actually less likely to die," she said. The reasons include the fact that, unlike older women, poor teenagers are generally not juggling jobs and have older relatives to help.
    It can make sense for poor women to have children when they are quite young, Geronimus concludes, and any effort to change that ought to treat it as an economic problem, not a health education problem.
    In a different re-analysis, Geronimus made another counterintuitive finding. While it is true that, in general, teen mothers are less likely to breast-feed their babies than older moms, it is not true among poor women. Poor teenagers are actually more likely to breast-feed than poor older moms, in large part because the older women have jobs that don't grant them the time to breast-feed or pump milk."
  • Arai, Lisa (2009). "What a Difference a Decade Makes: Rethinking Teenage Pregnancy as a Problem," Social Policy and Society, 8, 171-183.
    "Early motherhood was reported, then, to have had a positive impact on the respondents' lives and the lives of those around them, even when pregnancy was unplanned. For those young women who had previously had fraught relationships with parents, birth transformed family dynamics and healed breaches. [...] Women reported motherhood as having benefits, primarily in that it healed family breaches and brought estranged family members together. This was especially the case where women had experienced early life adversity. Popular images of young mothers often depict them as unsupported and alone. Here, women were well-supported and their parenting status was accepted by their families (even though not all parents initially welcomed pregnancy). Many young women were able to work or study with the help of their families. Macintyre and Cunningham-Burley's (1993) observation that teenage mothers are often well-supported and that the loneliest and least well-supported mothers are middle class, married women geographically distant from their families was confirmed here. Against a national picture of low pay, family-unfriendly working practices and the difficulties and expense of securing suitable childcare, the women in the study were assisted in a way that would be unthinkable to many older women. This is not to imply that the young women did not struggle; there seemed little hope of decently paid and satisfying work in their areas, and women reported sporadic episodes of hostility from others in their neighbourhoods. However, supported by their parents, they coped well with the transition to parenthood and were keen to point out the benefits of early motherhood, especially to those strangers who judged them."


  • Duncan, S. (2007). "What's the problem with teenage parents? And what's the problem with policy?," Critical Social Policy, 27, 307–334.
    "This social threat discourse is buttressed by a widespread perception that teenage pregnancy has never been higher. This is despite the fact that teenage birth rates in Britain are no higher than in the supposed 'golden age' of the family of the 1950s, and there have been substantial declines in both rates and absolute numbers since the 1960s and early 1970s (see Table 1). By 2004 only 12 per cent of conceptions were to women aged under 20, and just 0.9 per cent to those under 16, with an even smaller share of births – 7 per cent and 0.6 per cent respectively. Rates are also falling in the USA and other ‘high rate’ countries like New Zealand and Canada."
  • Noll, Jennie G.; Shenk, Chad E.; Putnam, Karen T. (2009). "Childhood Sexual Abuse and Adolescent Pregnancy: A Meta-analytic Update," Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 34(4), 366-378.
    "Rates of adolescent pregnancy and motherhood, for all age groups and ethnicities within the United States, are at their lowest levels in recent history. Pregnancy and motherhood rates for adolescents 15-19 years of age have declined 36 and 34%, respectively, since 1991."

Causes and prevention

  • Santelli, John S.; Lindberg, Laura Duberstein; Finer, Lawrence B.; and Singh, Susheela (2006). "Explaining Recent Declines in Adolescent Pregnancy in the United States: The Contribution of Abstinence and Improved Contraceptive Use," American Journal of Public Health, 97(1).
    "Our data suggest that declining adolescent pregnancy rates in the United States between 1995 and 2002 were primarily attributable to improved contraceptive use. The decline in pregnancy risk among 18- and 19-year-olds was entirely attributable to increased contraceptive use. Decreased sexual activity was responsible for about one quarter (23%) of the decline among 15- to 17-year-olds, and increased contraceptive use was responsible for the remainder (77%). Improved contraceptive use included increases in the use of many individual methods, increases in the use of multiple methods, and substantial declines in nonuse. These data suggest that the United States appears to be following patterns seen in other developed countries where increased availability and increased use of modern contraceptives have been primarily responsible for declines in adolescent pregnancy rates. Our findings raise questions about current US government policies that promote abstinence from sexual activity as the primary strategy to prevent adolescent pregnancy."