Friday, October 9, 2009

Is “Choice” a Real Choice for Young Mothers?

So the male squirrels at UC Davis are, in essence, on the Pill. I find this both fascinating (really? why does it “work” with male squirrels and not with human males?) and disturbing (something feels unethical about rendering an entire species population helpless against our human efforts to control their reproduction). Wait, on second thought, that sounds familiar.

Once unfathomable and unattainable, birth control of illimitable varieties is now an entitlement for women and young girls in America, yet the burden and expectation arguably rests with women to suppress their fertility. We are to “control” our ability to birth babies, lest we wreck our youth, our livelihoods, or – gasp! – force a poor guy to have a baby in which he certainly has no interest. Yet, much like the concealment of menstruation, we are similarly encouraged to conceal our fertility – and mask our birthing abilities while we carry on with life, almost as uninformed as those poor campus squirrels.

I have long struggled with how to support pregnancy and still fight the feminist fight. I take it personally that young women are encouraged to abort their babies as soon as they find out they’re pregnant with a loser guy or if their parents threaten their life or livelihood.

I was pregnant at 21, while still in college—unmarried, uncertain, and insecure. When I found out I was pregnant, abortion didn’t even cross my mind, though my circumstances made me destined to be a single mother. I was alone in celebrating my pregnancy, and I was more often than not criticized for “throwing away” my future. I was delighted to know that my body was about to carry a baby. Was I irresponsible for having my daughter--now a brilliant five-year-old in Kindergarten--when I did not know her future?

I was astounded at the lack of resources available for young mothers in college. After a trip to Planned Parenthood to take a blood test to confirm pregnancy, I was given a few pamphlets on my abortion choices and pregnancy diet advice – and shoved off with a “good luck.” Planned Parenthood was happily in my face when I needed the birth control pill, free exams, Plan-B, and multicolored condoms—but I had no reason to be planning: no husband, no stability? Time to make a “choice,” right?

As young women particularly, stigma forces us to have an abortion as soon as we find out that we are pregnant and not yet “living” the life we want or “ready” to have the child – and we are coerced (or encouraged) (or make the choice) to abort—and suffer the loss of a child that we once had to carry. What message are we sending to young women – when we stigmatize them and turn their life into a cost/benefit analysis, even totaling the teen mother impact on tax payers ($3.8 billion annually, if you were wondering)?

My impression is that if you’re a married teen with some guy to pay for the baby, you’re qualified to have the baby. Or, of course, you can have the baby and give it to a more qualified married couple or a family who will give the baby a "better life." Babies belong with capable people, right? Young women, though capable of conceiving, bearing, and birthing, are not capable of feeding, diapering, and caretaking?

What defines "better?"

The movie Juno was controversial because it “glorified” teen pregnancy, and according to many feminists it failed to make pregnancy "real" enough to scare young women out of being preggers. In fact, some girls in a high school even allegedly made a pact to have babies together after school officials noticed that is was odd for so many “young white women” to suddenly be pregnant. In fact, the school was criticized for having “too good” of a program to support its pregnant teens, complete with on-site daycare and teens with strollers roaming the halls.

I think the following clip is very revealing. It shoes a young mother who attends the high school with "too good" of a teen mothering program talking about her decision to keep her child. It is difficult to watch her struggle to articulate and defend her decision to have and raise her child, with her child on one side of her and an “expert” on her other side:

The rise in teen pregnancy (apparently synonymous with “birth out of wedlock”) is being blamed on Hollywood, comparing babies to a fashionable “must have” item. But don’t suburbanites crave the same “must have” item?

Of course, we have come a long way, right? We are no longer expelled from school and placed in maternity homes to have our babies and put them up from adoption, right? Maybe we have not come very far after all: just this year a young female student sued her private high school for her expulsion for expelling her because she violated the “sexual misconduct” policy at her school, after she was found to be pregnant.

Group maternity homes are again on the rise and women are increasingly offered post-abortion support, so it may seem that things are looking up for the balance of “choice” in the United States. Choice however, particularly for young mothers, should include the option to bear and raise a healthy child, without having to defend the decision to be a mother.

Reproductive justice and the right to have a healthy pregnancy

The reproductive justice movement is making great strides to call attention to the necessity for more education and empowerment about a woman’s right to have a healthy pregnancy. Some organizations, such as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health , have embraced activism that supports more education and health care access for young mothers rather than stigmatizing the problem. They note that, “the current discourse on teen pregnancy prevention presents young motherhood as a problem in itself as opposed to the real problems that often surround it, such as poverty and lack of access to timely and high quality healthcare services and educational opportunities."

Young mothers should not be targeted as derelicts for choosing to own their body and be mothers. It is a feminist act for many young mothers to buck criticism, to close doors, and to “keep” the child. We should support any woman’s choice to raise a child, and work to protect her safety, health, and welfare. Motherhood is not a science, but a very personal, very political act.

By encouraging young mothers to give away or abort their babies, we perpetuate an ongoing myth that children can only exist healthily if they are in standard two-parent heterosexual homes. Can it be pro-feminist to celebrate that girls can be mothers, and it’s not too expensive or too burdensome to have a child? Can feminists support both the right to have an abortion, and the right to have a healthy pregnancy?

The Asian Communities for Reproductive justice define reproductive oppression in the following excerpt:

We believe reproductive justice is the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives…The control and exploitation of women and girls through our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction is a strategic pathway to regulating entire populations that is implemented by families, communities, institutions, and society. Thus, the regulation of reproduction and exploitation of women’s bodies and labor is both a tool and a result of systems of oppression based on race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age and immigration status.

The choice to be a mother: an equal challenge for all mothers

If you are a parent, you are already on the fringe of capitalist life. Starting off as an unmarried, directionless mother makes little difference in the long run. Sure, you have to work hard, but who doesn’t work hard at parenting? It doesn’t change over time--you may get married, divorced, remarried, get jobs, lose jobs, have a mortgage--but the challenge of caring for someone who is entirely dependent on you stays the same, for everyone.

My daughter's life began against the grain, and I have spent the past five years perfecting my ability to give her the best life possible, a very beautiful life -- both when I was a single welfare mom, and now as a married law student. Either way, whose life would have been better had I not chosen to be her mother? I have spoken to other young mothers who agree: life isn't any harder, because we know no other way to live life. Our adult lives began with the choice to be mothers.


Naomi said...

I really like the way that you defend a single mother's right to keep their child, and challenge the notion that a woman who is not necessarily planning for family could not be a good mother. Women still face many stereotypes, and although having a child as a teen or younger young adult alone may be difficult, the emotional maturity of women makes it possible for many to do just that and raise the child alone. Or is it really alone, when family and friends are there to support? If there is no father, does the baby recieve any less love when the proverbial village is raising it? In this day and age of non-traditional families, families with one parent and families with three or more parents happen more and more, if we don't see the good in family, whatever they be, we are losing sight of the point. Anyone who loves and cares for their child should be considered a fit mother or father, whether or not they have made a choice to share duties with another person or persons or not.

Eve said...

I agree that one hypocritical position many pro-choice advocates hold is their denunciation of a teen’s choice to carry a fetus to term. This stance is the product of denying pregnant teenagers’ agency. However, having a child as a teenager may often be the most responsible and thoughtful decision one can make: as a teen one has a broader family support network and having children younger may result in fewer complications during the pregnancy.

On the other hand, I find it frustrating that story lines in T.V. shows and movies rarely result in the teenager choosing to have an abortion. Abortion still isn’t a realistic choice for many women, particularly minors. The media should not disparage teen pregnancy, but it is also has a duty to show abortions as a responsible option.

The response to Juno and the “pregnancy pact” were greatly exaggerated. In fact, the pregnancy pact didn’t even exist. My best friend went to Gloucester High School, and according to her, the story was fabricated by news organizations and people seeking to blame the media for its positive portrayal of teen pregnancy.

If we want to talk about choice, then we need real choice. Contraceptives, abortions, healthcare and childcare should be readily available for all women so that they can make the choice that makes the most sense to them.

Mo said...

I know how extremely naïve this makes me sound, but I simply cannot understand why pregnancy and family planning service centers in our culture have to exist in such polar opposite forms. Essentially, we have Planned Parenthood at one extreme, which at least in your case was seemingly entirely unsupportive of your pregnancy, and so-called “life centers,” not-for-profit organizations that provide free healthcare and counseling, but discourage abortion and promote abstinence, at the other. So far as I can tell, both purport to place the choice in the woman’s hands and empower her to do what she feels is right. But clearly, that’s not what’s going on. Your experience is undoubtedly representative of others’ as regards Planned Parenthood. And at least one local life center that claims to “empower [women] with information, medical services and support they need to be able to choose life for their unborn children” also circulates photos such as this:

How, I wonder, are women empowered by being whisked across a threshold with pregnancy pamphlets in hand? And what choice do women have when they are told that 53 million “people” are dead as a result of choosing to terminate pregnancies?

Perhaps what’s most troubling is that the women who end up in the Planned Parenthoods and life centers across the United States are almost exclusively low-income earners and often single mothers (or single soon-to-be mothers). Would a high-income woman expect this sort treatment from a physician at her local medical group? Or would she expect more balanced, objective counseling? Perhaps our culture simply tolerates a lower standard of care for low-income patients. As naïve as it sounds, I refuse to believe this must continue to be the case.