By Ariel Newman
Teen pregnancy has been prevalent in the media and in pop culture for the last several years. From shows like 16 and Pregnant to sensationalized movies like The Pregnancy Pact, teenage pregnancy is an issue with the potential to attract a lot of attention. What is the current state of human rights for teenage mothers in the United States today?
Women who do not complete high school are more likely to live in poverty and have children who do not graduate. Armed with that knowledge, we can see what an incredible shame it is that only 40% of teenage mothers graduate from high school, and as few as 2% finish college by age 30. The reasons behind this lack of educational achievement may not be what you expect.
Pregnant and parenting high school students, like all high school students, deserve equal access to educational opportunities. High school administrators cite numerous justifications for refusing to make allowances for pregnant students and barring them from equal participation in school activities, a direct violation of Title IX. They fear inclusion of these students may “promote teenage pregnancy”, send messages that would contradict a school’s abstinence-only education policy, or distract other students.
Are these reasons really worth denying these students the opportunity to reach their full potential? Further, are these concerns even warranted? Not very much, it turns out. Students educated about the realities of parenthood are less likely to become pregnant, and states that lack comprehensive sex education have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy. Although administrators are often under the misconception that pregnant teenagers will not take their education seriously, parenting teenagers reported having children increased their motivation to graduate from high school. However, factors like social stigmatization, lack of childcare options, and strict attendance policies are hard to overcome.
Alternative education programs aren’t always a good option for these students because these programs often lack advanced courses or college-preparatory classes. One student in California reported she was made to take the same English course three times because there were no other courses available in the pregnant and parenting student program she attended. Forcing students into these programs sends all students a message; teenage mothers are not worth educating, and they are not expected to succeed.
Supporting legislation that ensures pregnant students have access to equal educational opportunities can make a tremendously meaningful impact. New Mexico’s passage of HB 300 in 2013, a bill that included extended medical-related school absences for pregnant teens under the state’s existing parental leave law, was a simple but effective step in ensuring pregnant students are able to continue their education while caring for themselves and their children.
These pregnant and parenting high school students are, in fact, still teenagers. Denying them a quality education not only does a great injustice to them, it does a great injustice to their future children. We owe it to these students and their children to create safe and inclusive educational environments where they can thrive and succeed.