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Teen pregnancy matters

Lives are likely to be ‘poorer’ in every way for young mothers

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She was only 14 the first time. Her mom was in Winnipeg because there were problems with her pregnancy and she left her with her dad and little brothers. There had been another party at the house and her dad was drunk. She awakened with him on top of her. She was scared and horrified and didn’t know what to do. But she did know that she wasn’t going to tell anyone.

She was a good student. The teacher had even said maybe she could be the first person in her family to go to university. But she started to stay out late to avoid her dad, her marks went way down, she dropped out of school and started to drink.

She needed a friend and was happy when Malcolm came along. He was older but he said he loved her and he would take care of her. Then the inevitable happened. She was 16, pregnant, and Malcolm had already moved on.

This is not a true story, but it could be — the stories of teen pregnancy all have a haunting similarity.

About 16,000 teenagers in Canada gave birth last year. Manitoba has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Canada. At 47 pregnancies for every 1,000 female teens, Manitoba’s rate is almost triple the rate in Quebec and British Columbia but only one third the rate in Nunavut.

In 2007, the latest year for accurate Manitoba statistics, 1,373 teens aged 15 to 19 became mothers. An astonishing 17 girls younger than 15 had babies.

The number of teen pregnancies in Manitoba is highest in the northern health region including Thompson where the rate is 129 pregnancies for every 1,000 female teens.

In Winnipeg the rates vary from 145 in Point Douglas to 53 in River Heights and 20 in Fort Garry. Most teen parents are poor. At least half are aboriginal.

Teen pregnancy rates matter. Younger teens are too young to bear children and teens, as a group, have babies who are likely to be born prematurely, have smaller birth weights, developmental problems, and require time in intensive care neonatal units. The moms face a greater risk of anemia, hypertension, renal problems and eclampsia.

The rate of teen pregnancy in Canada is less than half that of the United States. In both countries, and much of the rest of the world, for that matter, rates have been on a general decline for several years and there are some lessons we can learn from this.

This decline is not attributed to a reduction in sexual activities nor an increase in the abortion rate. It is due to increased sexual responsibility and use of contraceptives.

So how do we encourage more responsible behaviour and the use of contraception?

We start by stopping the abuse of young girls. At least 70 per cent of teen moms have been sexually molested as children, and as many as 40 per cent of all girls are molested. The most horrifying and soul destroying form is the sexual abuse by fathers, and it is more common than we think. Sexual assault, sometimes called date rape, also is not uncommon. It is a crime of violence and victims need to know they are not the cause, nor is their location, their clothing or a flirtatious presentation the cause.

Boys must learn that no actually means no and that message belongs in our schools, our homes, and our justice system.

One should not undervalue the cost of the exploitation of young girls by older men. No one, for example, should look away when girls aged 13 or 14 are hanging out with males aged 19 or 20. Every time we nab a car thief, or a gang member we should be looking to where the girls are because they are not far away. They will have heard that they will be supported and protected, and a lot of young girls are vulnerable to that kind of message.

Females who are abused often don’t act out; they are easy to ignore because they aren’t causing problems, but they may well be having them.

Research in Canada, and internationally, shows that when girls stay in school and are doing well they are less likely to become sexually involved early and more likely to use contraceptives when they do become involved.

And if they find themselves pregnant they give real consideration to their choices, because they have a future plan and they know a baby is going to make that harder.

If we look at numbers carefully, however, we can see how much the socio-economic circumstance of the family plays into the equation.

Both the use of contraceptives and the acceptance of abortion in the event of an unplanned pregnancy appear to have wide acceptance among the middle class.

Consistent with that, girls from these families are also pursuing higher education at much larger numbers than daughters of the poor. They have a future planned which doesn’t necessarily include children or include them early.

Pregnancy is still the major reason teenage girls drop out of school. Already poor, this disruption makes these young women more vulnerable to continued poverty, abuse and neglect in relationships. Teen parents are mostly single and they tend to stay single.

Their daughters are more likely to become teen parents than children of older mothers. Because of their age at birth it is not unusual in some communities to meet great grandmothers who are younger than 50.

The prognosis for the children of teen mothers is not promising but some interesting new research shows that if you remove the effects of socioeconomic, status a lot of the differences between children of teens and children of older mothers disappear.

That means if we fund programs to intervene early, keep these young women in school, ensure they have good child care, keep them safe, build their confidence and help them join the labour market while they still have only one child, most of the negative effects of early childbearing will disappear

We also need to talk openly about sexuality, and make birth control easily accessible. It is not sexuality which causes pregnancy, it is sex without contraceptives, and abstinence only works for a few. If we acknowledge that sexuality will continue to be a big part of teenage lives we will give them the tools and resources to prevent pregnancy, and for that matter, disease.

Abortion is a simple, safe, and free medical service available when a woman finds herself pregnant and does not want to be. Terminating a pregnancy does not require a hospital stay and over a third of abortions today are performed in clinics.

Advocates say they could be available in small towns and in the North and young people should know about the service, and how to access it.

Those who choose to continue with their pregnancy need information that adoption fulfills the dreams of many families, and open adoptions which allow continued access between the child and its birth mother often work.

We can support parenthood without attaching it to gender. Fatherhood is one of the many roles a young boy may learn he may have in life. But we do not give it the distinction of being his sole role in life. Yet many girls do not prepare for a life apart from motherhood. Full-time parenting is no longer common, even in two-parent families, and a life of dependence on welfare is a dismal prospect.

Ironically, programs for teen parents which concentrate mainly on nurturing and motherhood may produce an unplanned outcome: second babies.

Within two years of their first child, 25 per cent of teen mothers are pregnant again. And every birth makes a life of self reliance more difficult and a life on welfare more likely. It’s simple really. Not only is it harder to hold a job the more children you have, you also need more skills and education to earn the wage you require to support your family.

Young women who choose to keep their babies will need the ongoing support of family and friends and the community as a whole through its resources. They will need an intensive program to intervene early to help finish school, and to find suitable day care. They will need counsellors assistance in exploring the labour market and enough money to live in stable housing and to prepare for a job.

If we provide that, the payoff is high and the cycle will stop.

 Linda Taylor, a Winnipeg writer, created and for 15 years managed the Resources for Adolescent Parents program at New Directions for Children, Youth and Families.

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