Abstinence doesn’t do the trick

This blog, written by Wikichild co-ordinator Melinda Deleuze, discusses the negative impact that adolescent pregnancies can have on the child, the mother and all of society. It is a contribution to the last day of the Wikiprogress spotlight on the Wikigender Network.

When I was 16 years old, I had one week of sex education required by my American high school. However, my state’s curriculum revolved around abstinence as the preferred means of birth control, along with fear as the method to encourage restraint until marriage. In my class, at least one girl, aged 15, already had an abortion before taking the course, and one boy, also aged 15, was a father. The course provided too little, too late. YES, abstinence has a 100% success rate. YES, it is the best way to avoid catching a sexually transmitted infection. NO, I’m not surprised that the US ranks second to last among the rich countries for number of teen births: 36 per 1,000 births among 15-19 year old girls (read more in this blog). 
Rich countries vs. the US in teen births (per 1,000 15-19 years old)
*Legend: In the lefthand graph, the UNICEF 
colors  represent the first, second and third 
Teen births per 1,000 15-19 year olds
Data from UNICEF’s 11th Report Card and KIDS COUNT Data Book

tiers of countries’ ranking. In the graph on the right, the colors match states with the country tiers. In this case,  the darkest blue indicates the 21 states which have a higher rate of teen births than the lowest ranking country (i.e. Bulgaria).

This year’s UN World Population Day focused on adolescent pregnancies, a persistent occurrence in both developing and developed countries. Around 16 million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 give birth each year, according to the WHO. While there may be varying opinions on this issue, the fact is that adolescent pregnancies gravely affect the teen mother, the child and the rest of society (i.e. you and me). Despite misleading perceptions, these consequences can occur among married and unmarried adolescents in developed and developing countries for both intended and unintended pregnancies.

 How does it affect the well-being of the child?

The immediate health of children born to adolescent mothers is at risk, and the younger the mother, the higher the risk. This WHO Reportstates that “in low- and middle-income countries, stillbirths and death in the first week and first month of life are 50% higher among babies born to mothers younger than 20 years than those born to mothers aged 20–29 years.” Also, babies born to adolescent mothers are more likely to be pre-term, have a lower birth weight and have asphyxia, which all increase the baby’s chance of death or future health problems. Substance abuse during pregnancy is higher among adolescent girls, which contributes to a higher percentage of low birth-weight babies and infant mortality, along with other health issues.

How does it affect the well-being of the young mother?

First of all, the health of young mothers is severely compromised, as pregnant teenagers face double the risk of dying from pregnancy-related complications relative to women in their 20s.* This UNFA report summary states that “across developing countries, complications from pregnancy and unsafe abortion are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19.The younger the mother, the more she is at risk of maternal complications, death and disability, including obstetric fistula. Up to 65% of women with obstetric fistula developed this during adolescence, says this WHO Report. Additionally, adolescent pregnancies are at higher risk for sexually transmitted diseases. Younger girls are less likely to practice safe sex and make up 64% of all new infections among young people worldwide, states this UNFPA factsheet.

Additionally, adolescent pregnancy contends with secondary education. In developed countries, motherhood during adolescent years increases girls’ chances of dropping out of school. In the United States, teen mothers are 10% less likely to obtain a high school diploma, as shown in this UNFPA report summary. Whereas in developing countries, the longer girls remain in school, the less likely they are to become pregnant in their teens. In Timor-Leste, for example, total fertility rates vary from 6 to1 ratio births per woman with no education to only 2 to 9 ratio births for women with secondary schooling or above, as indicated in this Women Deliver background paper. Delaying childbearing also increases chances of obtaining a higher income and better careers, among with other aspects of well-being, such as mental and psychological.

How does it affect the overall well-being of society?

Adolescent pregnancies concern us all as they negatively impact the development of a society. This UNFPA report summary states that “investing in family planning helps reduce poverty, improve health, promote gender equality, enable adolescents to finish their schooling and increase labour force participation.” In the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message for this year’s World Population Day, he stated that “when we devote attention and resources to the education, health and well-being of adolescent girls, they will become an even greater force for positive change in society that will have an impact for generations to come.”

I’m grateful that the World Population Day addressed adolescent pregrancy. While we often talk about maternal and infant mortality rates, as well as low birth-weight babies, we overlook at times this major proponent. I hope that there can be more open conversations with teens in order to overcome some of the obstacles to preventing teen pregnancies. And believe me, teaching abstinence just doesn’t do the trick.

Melinda Deleuze

* Gennari, Pamela, J. 2013. “Adolescent Pregnancy in Developing Countries.” International Journal of Childbirth Education 28:57

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