Latina Teen Pregnancy Surveys Should Avoid Blame

Information about Latina teen pregnancy and childbirth should be presented in a way that enables the public to understand the exact dimension and context of the issue.

Editor’s Note:  This article originally appeared on June 1, 2009, the morning after the murder of Dr. Tiller.  Because of the overwhelming response to Dr. Tiller’s murder, the piece was prematurely replaced by breaking news.  We are running it again now to give the issue due coverage.

A recent
opinion survey makes a good attempt to identify the social and cultural
dynamics that may lie behind the high rate of pregnancy among
U.S.-based Latina teens.  Existing efforts to curb teen pregnancy miss
the mark for many Latinos, and more investment like this is needed to
identify better messages and programs.  Unfortunately, the limitations
found in this type of study lead to more questions than answers, and
the accompanying analysis leaves itself exposed to the potential for
scapegoating – rather than helping – Latino teens and their families.

Survey results reveal that, similar to other racial and ethnic groups,
Latino teens are most impacted by their parents when it comes to
decisions about sexual activity.  Further, Latino teens are not getting
enough information about contraception from parents, and believe that
their parents are not sure how to discuss sex with them. Most of these
views are consistent with those obtained from parents and teens in
other demographic groups, according to past polls. Exploring how
historical socioeconomic disparities affect the way Latino teens and
their parents discuss sexuality topics would have perhaps yielded
richer results. For example, the study reports 43% of Latino teens
don’t get information about contraceptives from their parents, but
doesn’t ask whether parents have the tools necessary to do this
effectively or at all. Over 25 percent of U.S. Latino adults lack
access to a regular health provider and health-related information.

Information about Latina teen pregnancy and childbirth should be
presented in a way that enables the public to understand the exact
dimension and context of the issue. Data should illustrate to what
degree sexuality health and planned reproduction is being exercised by
Latino teens, but also by non-Latino youth. It is a fact that young
Latinas share the highest birthrate among all groups (83/1000), but
teen childbirth among other minorities is also high. Also, the
birthrate among 15-to-19-year-olds across all ethnic
groups rose 1.4% from 2006 to 2007, and more births were also reported
among women in their 20s, 30s and 40s and older unmarried women. High
childbirth rates are not exclusive to Latino adolescents; yet, when
data are presented without comparative analysis, it is easy to single
them out as the only group with a high rate. The incomplete picture
stigmatizes young Latinas as sexually irresponsible.

Most studies focusing on Latina teen pregnancy call for culturally
competent education and prevention programs, and we couldn’t agree
more. One-size-fits-all approaches to sexuality education have
consistently failed to resonate with Latinas’ cultural values.
Motherhood at any stage of life is a value embraced by many Latinos.
Instead of focusing on the importance of planning and preparing for the
real-life expectations, joys and challenges of motherhood, most current
prevention efforts inundate Latino teens with fear-inflicting messages
that portray childbearing as a negative life event, one that kills
dreams and opportunities. Moreover, there is often a conflation between
‘pregnancy’ and ‘childbirth,’ ignoring termination – a crucial option
that could be available to young women.

Teen pregnancy should not be the only focus of studies aimed at
understanding the reproductive health of Latino teens. The same lack of
access to medical care, appropriate information and prevention programs
that leave Latino teens without the tools to plan for pregnancy also
generates other important issues, including sexually transmitted
infections, which must be addressed with equal urgency in the national
conversation led by the media, as well through appropriate legislation.

Additionally, fair reporting of research findings is necessary to avoid
myopic news reports and biased perceptions toward Latinos. Currently,
many media reports tend to present facts about Latina teen pregnancy in
scandalous language, subtly portraying Hispanic childbirth as an
epidemic that must be stopped. Information about pregnancy rates is
often presented in the context of increased poverty, minority
population growth and even undocumented immigration. While individual
statistics are not prejudiced in themselves, combining them into
negative reports to imply association can feed existing xenophobic
attitudes toward Latinos and even foster new ones.

We must be careful not isolate teen pregnancy as the only issue
affecting Latinas and Latinas only. Their sexuality is shaped by a
multiple of socioeconomic realities and unique cultural aspects. Survey
studies on the subject should accurately reflect that.