New York City Tries to Shame Its Teens Into Not Having Babies

Featuring heart-tugging images of toddlers, a new multiracial ad campaign links teen pregnancy to financial strain, heartbreak, fatherlessness and undereducated children. Reproductive justice activists call the tough-love message counterproductive.

By Jamilah King Mar 06, 2013

A 27 percent drop in teen pregnancy rates over the past decade apparently isn’t good enough for politicians in New York City. This week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office announced the launch of a new ad campaign aimed at making adolescents understand what it calls the "real cost of teen pregnancy." The advertisements, which will run on subways, buses, and social media platforms, feature a multiracial cast of babies in various states of distress accompanied by text that explains how hard their lives will be because of their parents’ ages. One image of a dark skinned little girl includes the message, "Honestly mom…chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?" Another features a crying toddler with curly blond hair telling the world, "I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen." Citing millennial attitudes about teen pregnancy and racial undertones of the ads, critics question the approach. "[These ads] are problematic to young women of color and young mothers of color," says Jasmine Burnett, the lead organizer for NYC for Reproductive Justice, a volunteer network of reproductive justice groups in the city. "It’s like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you have your child, you’re shamed and seen as an irresponsible decision-maker. If you choose not to have your child and have an abortion instead, you’re shamed for that, too." Kate Stewart, vice president for public affairs at Advocates for Youth, says the "real cost" campaign is reminiscent of a series of [hotly contested anti-abortion billboards](–and_one_reason_to_feel_the_lo.html) that sprang up around the country two years ago. "I think in New York City where we had a genocide billboard targeting young African American women, there’s been a strong [message] of their sexual health being stigmatized," Stewart says of the ad that equated voluntary abortion with genocide by describing "the womb" as the most dangerous place in the world for black babies. The billboard was part of a [large and well-funded campaign by prominent, predominantly white anti-abortion groups]( "Some teens are going to become pregnant and decide to have the baby. That’s life," Stewart continues. "It’s happened for hundreds of years. But when that happens, we have to make sure that teen parents have support, respect and access to programs that can help them be successful." Haydee Morales, vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York, is troubled by the tone and the underlying assumption of the campaign. "Fear-based messages just don’t work in teen pregnancy prevention strategies," she says. "[And these] ads are saying–falsely–that teen pregnancy is going to make you poor and keep you poor, but we know that *poverty* keeps you poor." New York City has already had a good deal of success in its battle against teen pregnancy. Recent data from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show a 27-percent reduction in the teen pregnancy rate over the last 10 years; the current rate is 72.6 pregnancies per 1,000 girls.* The city’s strategy includes comprehensive sex health education, and onsite clinics in some public schools where teens can get information, emergency contraceptives, oral birth control, pregnancy tests and confidential referrals. However, there are still more than 20,000 teen pregnancies in the city annually, and statistics have long shown that teen parents are less likely to finish high school and more likely to live in poverty. That fact seems to be fueling the ad campaign. In a Monday press release from the mayor’s office, Bloomberg and other officials stressed personal–and economic–responsibility. "This campaign makes very clear to young people that there’s a lot at stake when it comes to deciding to raise a child," Bloomberg is quoted as saying. "…By focusing on responsibility and the importance of education, employment, and family in providing children with the emotional and financial support they need, we’ll let thousands of young New Yorkers know that waiting to [become] a parent could be the best decision they ever made." "We know that teens can be impulsive, and some impulsive behaviors can have greater consequences than others," Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs says in the same release. "Unprotected sex, which can lead to teen pregnancy, is one of those behaviors and this campaign is designed to help teens think through the real-life costs of teen pregnancy and guide them toward healthier decisions." Human Resources Agency Director Robert Doar adds, "We cannot dictate how people live their lives, and sometimes even the best plans don’t work out, but we must encourage responsibility and send the right message, especially to young people." But some of those same young people insist that they don’t need lectures. What they need instead is a supportive infrastructure that can aid young parents. The Brooklyn Young Mothers’ Collective offers services to more than 250 pregnant young women and teenage mothers each year between the ages of 12 and 21, and they know what young people respond to — and what they don’t. Their staff is adamant that "condescension never works." "Lectures never do anything for teenagers in general, it doesn’t matter if they’re pregnant or not," Yashea Braddock, the group’s exeuctive director, tells Colorlines. "The support networks they need are their families and their schools. What they don’t need is to be judged or to consider themselves failures." *Post has been updated since publication.