You cannot say that the respectable thing for a young pregnant woman to do is to carry her pregnancy to term if you do not respect the fact that she got pregnant. If you cannot respect the fact that a woman is pregnant, you cannot respectably advise or restrict her choices whether by law or by contributing to social pressure. If you accept that this young woman is sexually autonomous in her own right, then you must also accept her reproductive choices. Respecting a person’s sexual autonomy (their right to make their own sexual decisions) is impossible if you believe that what that person chooses to do sexually is wrong and that any outcome of those decisions are a punishment they earned from their wrong behavior.
We see examples all the time of the personal, social, and institutional lack of respect for female sexual autonomy, especially for young women. It is evidence in Sandra Fluke being called a prostitute for talking publicly about birth control, in the middle-school student who was outed as pregnant during a school assembly, and in parental notification laws for minors seeking an abortion. None of these young women have been shown respect for their individual sexual and reproductive decisions.
I am currently reading an amazing book that sheds some insight onto this problem. It’s called Virgin: The Untouched History, by Hanne Blank. In the book, she explores the wide variety of the meaning, implication, value, and methods of proving virginity across centuries of Western culture. It’s a fascinating read. I knew I found a topic to write about when she discussed the history of girls being married off in their early to mid teens. It was amazing to see how practices from hundreds of years ago are still influencing the way we talk about teen pregnancy today. Let me share two quotes.
As long as puberty, marriage, and virginity loss all generally followed very closely on one another’s heels, a woman’s social and biological adulthood could not only appear to unfold as a single streamlined entity, it could actually do so.
When sexual activity can be directly linked to parenthood…then it makes perfect sense that sexual activity also gets linked to adulthood and the assumption of adult responsibility.
We see here that from the cultural practice of girls getting married as young as 12 or 13 that their social adulthood (evidenced by their marriage and the sexual activity there-in) coincided with pregnancy (which was extremely difficult to control, lacking modern methods). So, if you have a pregnant woman, the social expectation is that she is an adult- with all of the mental and physical abilities and responsibilities of an adult. While nowadays we wouldn’t call a 14 year old an adult, we still socially expect that if she is pregnant she must also have the abilities and responsibilities we associate with adulthood. This is incredibly unfair. Sex is no longer something that is socially confined to adult (i.e. married) people, so we must no longer assume that a young person having sex must mean that they are ready and capable to parent.
The quotes also speak to the tremendous double standard young pregnant women face. Look again at the beginning of the second quote: “When sexual activity can be directly linked to pregnancy…” It is women who have to bare the evidence of sexual activity, not men. If a girl gets pregnant, she can’t deny the fact that she had sex, but a boy can. She is the one who is unable to avoid an outcome. And so- she is the one who shoulders the responsibility- she is the one who must deal with the reaction and judgment of her peers and society at large- she is the one who is deemed responsible for something she biologically could not have done on her own.
To tell her that she shouldn’t have had sex is to take away her autonomy. It is discrediting her ability to make her own sexual choices. Worse, it puts the power of deciding what she experiences sexually into someone else’s control. We have to accept that young women are sexual beings and that many young women choose to express that sexuality with a partner. We owe it to them to make sure that they have the education and access to share their sexuality in a healthy way and to avoid pregnancy until they are ready to parent. We must also realize that it takes two to tango and make sure that our young men are included in our dialogue on teen pregnancy and that they have the resources to be as aware and engaged as possible in their sexual and reproductive lives.