Commentary: NYC’s Anti-Teen Pregnancy Campaign Is Problematic

Shaming potential mothers and fathers isn’t really the answer to teen pregnancy.

Controversy seems to follow New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg around wherever he goes lately. The newest attack against him is aimed at anti-teen pregnancy campaign he signed off on for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This $400,00 campaign boasts a series of poster ads with crying babies—mostly of color—with taglines warning potential teen moms about how their life will turn if they have a baby.

“I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen.”

“Honestly Mom ... chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?”


Thankfully, politicians, reproductive advocates such as Planned Parenthood and pundits instantly blasted this campaign calling it insensitive, stigmatizing and "ignor[ing] the racial, economic and social factors that contribute to teenage pregnancy."

One of my favorite commentaries came from MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, who on her show called the ads stigmatizing, not factually sound and unfairly blamed single mothers for poverty. She also wonders why when teenage pregnancy rates are at an all-time low, with large decreases among teens of color, is the city spending their time and resources on these ads.

I wholeheartedly stand with Perry on this one: These ads are a mess.

And I don’t fault the city for wanting to address teen pregnancy. Having children early can have negative outcomes in someone’s life. But promising teens a world of financial and educational freedom if only they delay parenthood is extremely misleading. And if we are going to tell our youth, there is an alternative world with opportunity, we better be sure that world actually exists. And that we just can’t do.Not with inequality through K-12, raising tuition costs, caps on student loans and high interest rates and a crippling economy. 

I am also alarmed by how much this campaign blames teen mothers for this “crisis.” Last time, I checked, it takes two to make a baby. And while girls most likely control hormonal contraception use, not all teens are on birth control. For many, condoms are their go-to, and past studies have shown that male partners mostly control condom use. 

Yet, when the campaign tries to engage heterosexual teenage boys, it is to tell them that they are shiftless, irresponsible and won’t be around for their baby mamas and their children. How exactly does that usher in behavior changes? Yes, we need to build our boys up to be responsible and respectful, but these particular messages only perpetuate stereotypes that they are unworthy.

Not really empowering.

And so if the city truly cares about teens and their well-being, why not use actual teen parents—girls and boys—talking about their experiences and their struggles. Why not to talk to teens, instead of talking down to them? Why not actually get a more nuanced peek inside the lives and minds of teens in NYC?

Because really, scare tactics may work with getting folks to quit smoking or rethink super-sized sodas, but when it comes to talking about sexuality, behaviors, poverty and safer sex, scare tactics and shaming just fall flat.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: New York Daily News)

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