Teen Pregnancy Ads: Shame Campaign?

A new public service announcement in New York City aimed at preventing teen pregnancy is raising eyebrows. Ads feature young children with captions such as, 'Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year.' Host Michel Martin asks the beauty shop ladies if the ads are helpful or just a shame campaign.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Now it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on hot topics with our panel of women journalists, commentators, bloggers and activists.

Today we want to focus on a series of public service announcements aimed at preventing teen pregnancy. The ads are running in New York City, where they have gotten a lot of attention and are sparking a lot of discussion. They feature photos of young babies saying things like, honestly, Mom, chances are he won't stay with you. What happens to me? And I'm twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.

We wanted to talk more about this, so joining us now are Keli Goff. She's a columnist and blogger for TheRoot.com and The Huffington Post. Sarah Brown is the CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. And Natasha Vianna is with us. She's 24 years old. She's a blogger. She also works in health care and she is the mother of a daughter that she had when she was 17.

Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

KELI GOFF: Thanks so much.

SARAH BROWN: Great to be back.

NATASHA VIANNA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Keli, I'm going to start with you because you had a very...

GOFF: Uh-oh.

MARTIN: ...strong reaction to this. You said that the - well, I don't - it's not that you were outside the boundaries of public discourse. I'm just afraid, if I read it, that my hand will get scorched. You just said that I just wonder if the women of privilege running Planned Parenthood realize that children born in poor communities deserve the same opportunities their kids do. You said that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have some faults and that there are a lot of things that one could criticize him for, but this is not one of them. You said this is right on point and he got it absolutely right. Why do you feel so strongly about this?

GOFF: Well, look, this column actually came from a place where most of my columns do. I tend to have conversations with my mother and I tend to - she's the first editor I have on any column, has been since I was 10.

So she - and a lot of people don't know this and she's comfortable with me discussing it because I have in previous columns. She actually was a teen mom, not when she had me, but with another sibling, and she thought that these ads were great and right on target. And actually, her take was that the kind of sort of open conversation about this stuff never happened when she was younger. She just turned 70 and she'll probably be more upset about me discussing that than the teen mom stuff. So apologies, Mom, for saying that on air - the age.

But she - this kind of conversation, open discourse and sort of hard truths, didn't take place when she was younger and that's something that she thinks is missing. And the other thing I just want to say really quickly, Michel, is I kind of noticed that this conversation is a little bit like having a conversation on gun control. You either feel very strongly that the constitution is very firm on the 2nd Amendment - there's no wiggle room - or you don't.

And for me, you either believe that stigma or - is something that should never be used to influence public policy or social behavior or you do. I have friends who feel very strongly that stigma should never be used to try to discourage people from smoking or behaving any other way. I just happen to disagree with that and so do plenty of experts, including Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution, who wrote a piece for the Times about the idea, about this campaign and others, that stigma works. You may not always like it. It's not always fun. It's not always fair. It hurts people's feelings, but there are instances in which it works. I happen to agree with that, which is why I don't have a problem with the campaign or it being called stigmatizing. I don't have a problem with that, and neither did my mother, for the record, who was a teen mom.

MARTIN: Just to let people know what you're talking about, just in terms of some of the specific critics, that Planned Parenthood issued a statement saying the latest New York City ad campaign creates stigma, hostility and negative public opinions about teen pregnancy and parenthood...

GOFF: Do we want positive public opinions?

MARTIN: Wait. Let me finish. Rather than offering alternative aspirations for young people. And you go on to say I'm not sure where to start with this lunacy, and she said that you're not as concerned about stigma that teen parents may face than about the lifetime stigma their children face as they miss out on one opportunity after another.

Natasha?

VIANNA: Hi.

MARTIN: You ready to weigh in on this?

VIANNA: Oh, yes, I am. I'm a former teen mom and I was also raised by a teen mother. Growing up, I never even knew that I was being raised by a teen mother. I mean aside from knowing her age, I never faced any of the obstacles that some of these ads portray. My mother, being a teen mom and not going to college, she pushed all three of her children to do much more than she ever did, so if anything, I think her experience as a teen mom encouraged me to do much better in my life, and I was an honor roll student and I was an amazing, you know, example student, example daughter to many people. I was the honor roll student captain of the dance team, involved in every possible thing.

But at 17, because no one had these conversations with me about sexual education and relationships and emotional advice, I found myself pregnant. But I honestly think that it changed my life and I'm not saying that it's something that teens should do to change their lives, but I look at my experience as a teen mother as a positive experience.

MARTIN: So what do you think about the ads?

VIANNA: I think they're extremely stigmatizing. I think they just promote more of the stereotyping that teen moms already face. It's extremely unfair and it doesn't provide any information on how teens can prevent teen pregnancy.

MARTIN: Would it have caught your attention as a teenager?

VIANNA: Absolutely. It would catch my attention, I would read it and then I would think about all the teen parents that I know and continue to stigmatize them.

MARTIN: OK. You don't think it would've changed your behavior?

VIANNA: I don't think so. I mean when I became a teen mom I wasn't - when I was having sex as a teen, I was thinking about, you know, what my children are going to be like. I didn't even know where I wanted to go to college, yet alone if my child was going to finish, you know, high school. I honestly don't think it would've changed my view on having sex at a young age - or and it didn't provide, it wouldn't provide any information on how I can have a safe sexual relationship with my partner or abstain.

MARTIN: Sarah Brown how about...

GOFF: Michel, I'm sorry...

MARTIN: Well, let's have Sarah Brown weigh in on this. Sarah Brown, obviously you spend a lot of time thinking about, you know, this issue and what would work. And can we, do we all just disagree as a, I think maybe it's kind of interesting to even question whether we do, people do agree that it is best to delay parenthood after the teen years. I mean, Sarah?

BROWN: Well, I appreciate you saying that because I do think there's a basic fork in the road that people have to think about, which is: Are we or are we not in favor of encouraging young people to postpone their families until they are, not only through high school, but probably a little bit more than that - given this tough economy - in a stable relationship and so forth. Most people, including a lot of teen mothers, agree that even though things may work out in even though everybody tries very hard, our best advice - and the data are clear on this - is that it's better, particularly for the children involved, to have older parents.

But let me comment a bit about the ads because I think that's sort of what stimulated this.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BROWN: I think it's a couple of key points. First of all, the ads in this New York City campaign were only one part of a far larger effort, services, education, youth development, a lot is going on in the city. And, in fact, the rates have gone down almost 30 percent in the last decade. So number one is to commend a tough environment and a tough budget environment, commend them for trying.

Now, the ads, I do understand that they're edgy, there is no question about that. But, first of all, the facts that they relay are true. They may not be said in the gentlest way, and the pictures sure grab attention; but it is true that the fathers of most teen pregnancies disappear. It is true that most teen mothers don't graduate from high school and have a tough, tough time in this economy. Those things are true. And I think - I was not involved, our group was not involved in the ads in this campaign - but I do think that it's important to understand that teenagers in particular are in media, online, you know, stuff coming at them 24/7, and that in order to get their attention, using some edge is not always a bad idea. They report that they notice them. And again, this is not the only thing that the city is doing. If this were all there was I think we'd say what's a poster going to do?

I think Natasha and Keli are both right, you know, you need a lot more support - education, so forth - but they're driving young people - they hope - to a text-based program and then to services and so forth.

MARTIN: Well, I'm not sure how they both can be right since they completely disagree. But I don't know, they be that's possible.

GOFF: Well, no, we don't, that's actually...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Keli.

GOFF: Well, this...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Keli.

GOFF: This is Keli, because I was going to say we actually don't. Because one of the things that I have been a very vocal critic about - which is probably why this piece surprised some people - is I'm so vocal about the need for more sexual education. I'm so vocal about, you know, conservatives attempts to make it as tough as possible for every woman who is not wealthy to get access to birth control and reproductive services.

BROWN: Exactly.

GOFF: And so I want 100 percent agree with what Natasha said that there needs to be more education. I mean and actually, one of the things that I was upset about - and I've said this in interviews, although it didn't make it into the piece - is that Planned Parenthood has much bigger fish to fry. I mean their clinics are being closed last in right, their funding is under assault at the legislative level, and sexual education in schools, which is one of the most important part of the entire reproductively political debate, is being gutted left and right. And I completely agree with Natasha that the one thing that was missing that could have been added is the sentence that says: Here's where you can get information, here's where you can get help.

But I will say this, lastly, Michel, that the reason I feel so passionate about this campaign, there's so little in your life you have control of if you're not born in privilege in this country. And I'm someone who was born luckier than most, but I'm straight middle-class, my grandparents were, you know, picked cotton, my mother picked cotton at one point. And so for me, I feel like I can't control the race I was born, I can't control not been born into wealth. I want to focus on the things those of us who aren't from privilege can control. We can control our reproductive choices, which have a direct impact on our economic circumstances whether we end up in poverty. And if it takes an edgy message that hurts people's feelings to make us think about that, that that's within our control and our destiny, I am way OK with that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are having our weekly visit to the Beauty Shop. That's where we collect a panel of women, thinkers, writers, bloggers, activists, and talk about issues that are in the news. With us now, that's Keli Goff. She's a writer with TheRoot.com and the Huffington Post. Natasha Vianna is a blogger. She also had her daughter at the age of 17. And Sarah Brown is head of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Let me just throw out a couple of data points, just for two backup what Sarah Brown had to say - is that actually the rate of teen pregnancy has been dropping substantially in this country, that teens are waiting a lot longer to have sex in the recent past and its declined substantially among African-American teens, Latina teens - although the rate for African-American, Latina teens is still a lot higher than it is for white teens.

And also one other data point I want to throw out, this from the Guttmacher Institute, which is a nonprofit group that's well-respected that follows these issues. It turns out that teens in the U.S. and Europe have similar levels of sexual activity, but European teams are far more likely than American teens to use contraceptives and to use the most effective methods. And so therefore, according to Guttmacher, they have substantially lower pregnancy rates.

Sarah, you wanted to add something?

BROWN: Well, I think that the point that we've had a lot of progress recently, is really important. People need to know that this teen pregnancy thing can be reduced, we can make progress. We are not, sort of, frozen with this enduring issue. The rates of teen childbearing in this country have gone down almost 50 percent in the last 20 years. But the problem is that we still have the highest rate in the entire developed world. We are such outliers on this. So all these points about needing services and education and awareness, they are absolutely true. We have a long way to go.

MARTIN: Natasha, can I ask about this? You were saying that you weren't thinking about, you know, what would happen down the road when you were 17 and getting involved, sort of, sexually. Do you, what would've made a - if you weren't thinking about it, would more messages around contraception, or more messages around abstinence, or more messages around negotiating the relationship have made any difference?

VIANNA: I definitely think if there was more conversation about relationships, about love, about, you know, you're dating someone at 17 and you think that this is the person I want to be with for the rest of my life. Does a 17-year-old really understand what the rest of your life really means? I mean, there's plenty of conversation that's needed and I think that I really would've benefited from conversations around safe sex, birth control. If I had access to birth control and emergency contraceptive - I went to private school so I didn't have access to a health clinic, I didn't have access to sex ed in school or any of that in school. So and it was hard for me to leave school as a teenager to go see my doctor to get birth control or emergency contraceptive when, you know, the minute I leave school or don't show up they're notifying my parents. So there's a lot that was definitely needed. And I definitely believe that teen pregnancy prevention is needed. And I think that most of my teen parent friends believe that too, but I think the main point that we're trying to make is that it doesn't have to be at the expense of a teen mother's respect and dignity.

MARTIN: Well, I got to ask you about this, Natasha, though. What about shame? I mean shame is one of the reasons why we probably cut down on the drunk driving rate in this country. It used to be OK to have a couple beers and people all turned a blind eye to this. Shame is part of the reason we've cut down on smoking in this country. Is shame really such a bad idea?

VIANNA: Well, I'm not sure, but thinking about it, sex is a basic biological urge. It's something that all humans do. It's not necessarily a choice of whether or not you are going to have sex, it's usually a matter of when you are going to have sex. So I think the issue here is, you know, either delaying sex for teens or encouraging them to use birth control and have safe sex if they decide to. But I don't think that shaming them and making, you know, teenage sex this negative behavior, it's not quite to make teen pregnancy disappear, it's definitely not.

MARTIN: Sarah?

BROWN: Well, with all due respect, I just disagree with Natasha calling these ads full of shame and guilt. What they do is they present facts about the consequences of teen pregnancy and childbearing. As I mentioned earlier, it is true that the children of teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school. It is true that the men, the fathers often aren't resident and so forth. So I think that it's the, there's an edge to it. It's upsetting to see, the pictures are upsetting, and the understand that. But the notion that the teen mothers are directly being shamed is hard for a lot of us to understand.

But just one more point too...

MARTIN: But doesn't it kind of say, you know, you're doesn't it kind of the tone of it a little bit, you're stupid. You kind of, honey, you're stupid. You can't, can't you figure that out for yourself kind of thing?

BROWN: No. Well...

MARTIN: I mean isn't that why it's...

BROWN: Well, I don't think most teenagers were most adults sort of wallow around in data and so forth. We live our lives of relationships and love and everybody understands this. And Natasha is absolutely right about needing services and education. But just one more point, quickly. This problem of talking about the consequences of something is not just peculiar to teen pregnancy. I mean think about the work in the obesity area. I mean there are many people in this country who weigh, probably too much, but are trying to feel good about that or they like it, or maybe they've had trouble losing weight. And they see all these campaigns and, you know, reality shows and they report that they feel offended and disrespected. I understand that, but it still is true that we know that the health benefits of not being terribly overweight and so forth are quite real and we need to help people work on it. So this is the way it is with prevention, the people who have already gone down that path, for many good reasons or not, may feel put off by the prevention message.

MARTIN: OK.

BROWN: It's sort of the way it is with this issue.

MARTIN: All right. I'm going to give each of the other ladies a final word too. Keli, briefly, what's your final thought here? I'm kind of interested in what your mom's say about this. She thought the ads were great. Any other words of wisdom from her?

GOFF: Yeah. My mom always gets the last word. No, I think that to Natasha's point, one of the things that's kind of gotten lost in this conversation Michel, is that what works for one person doesn't work for someone else. So for every teen girl who says the ads wouldn't have made a difference for me, there's a girl, who to Natasha's point, when she said I wasn't thinking about that, who may be forced to think about it for the first time, this is how much it costs. And if the ads have that impact on one girl, I'm OK with that. I can live with that.

MARTIN: All Right. I got it. Natasha, I want to give you a final thought here. Very briefly, if you would.

VIANNA: My final thought here is that I don't think teen moms have to be shamed into teaching other teen parents - I'm sorry - other teens to not have sex or to prevent their potential pregnancy. And I'm just really ashamed to, and really embarrassed that nobody has really had a discussion around teen dads.

MARTIN: Good point.

VIANNA: I think a lot of the shame is being put on mothers. And the one ad that does talk about fathers is really just saying, you know, if you have a child you're going to be paying your baby mama for 21 years. So I don't think it's...

MARTIN: All right. We'll leave it there for now. Natasha, I'm sorry to cut you off but time is the one thing they're not making more of.

VIANNA: OK. Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Natasha Vianna is a blogger and mother of one. She joined us from member station WGBH in Boston. Sarah Brown is CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, here in Washington, D.C., Keli Goff is a correspondent for TheRoot.com, with us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you all so much.

GOFF: Thanks Michel.

BROWN: Thank you.

VIANNA: Thank you.

MARTIN: That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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