Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy by Kristen Luker (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996, 283 pp., $24.95)
IT WAS only a few years ago when, locked in curfew combat with a daughter experiencing the “frightful fourteens” (the “terrible twos” times 7), I decided that teenage logic can be an oxymoron. It was only later that my daughter admitted that she not only understood my concerns but also appreciated my strong stand against staying out all night as really a sign of caring.
I thought about this incident as I read Kristen Luker's new book, Dubious Conceptions: the Politics of Teenage Pregnancy. Luker, a professor of sociology and law at the University of California at Berkeley, explores the topic of teenage pregnancy and concludes that “[t]he short answer to why teenagers get pregnant and especially to why they continue those pregnancies is that a fairly substantial number of them just don't believe what adults tell them, be it about sex, contraception, marriage or babies.” To effect a change in teen behavior, she suggests that adults must learn to understand the new world “with its radically new circumstances” our teens live in.
Not surprisingly, Luker considers more contraceptive use, more access to abortion and more sex education as the best solutions to the problem of teen pregnancy. Parental involvement seems to be considered helpful only if the parents support all these options.
Luker admits bewilderment about the large numbers of “babies having babies” despite the availability of contraception and abortion and has several of these young mothers tell their stories. The stories are invariably poignant but rarely illuminative and lead to Luker's new contribution to the controversy: Teen pregnancy is a symptom rather than a cause of poverty. Thus, she maintains, cuts in social welfare programs will cause further misery rather than a change in behavior. “Early child-bearing,” she pronounces, “would decrease if poor teenagers had better schools and safer neighborhoods, and if their mothers and fathers had decent jobs so that teens could afford the luxury of being children for a while longer.”
As the parent of two teens myself (as well as an 11- year-old taking notes on the other two), I was disappointed but not surprised that Luker sees the solutions to the problem of teen pregnancy as political rather than personal. I was also disappointed to see that she only tackled this problem at its endpoint—pregnancy—rather than at the source of the problem: teenage sexual activity.
For many sociologists like Luker, the vast increase in sexual activity among teens is a just a fact. Preventing pregnancy and disease are the only problems considered amenable to intervention. The development of character, particularly the postponing of immediate pleasure for a higher purpose, is considered too moralistic for teens in today's culture. At best, teens are told to wait “until you are ready” at some vague point in the future but not necessarily until marriage. At worst, teens are told that having sex is a natural part of growing up and nothing to feel guilty about as long as the sex is “responsible,” i.e. protection is used against pregnancy and disease.
Like many parents, I too have been counseled to give my son condoms and my daughter the Pill “before it's too late.” But I look on my role as reinforcing that small voice of conscience in my children that threatens to be drowned out by our sex-saturated culture as well as by their own hormones. There is no pill for the soul and no condom for the heart.
Books like Dubious Conceptions ultimately fail because the contraceptive mentality and social welfare programs they aggressively promote fail to either satisfy or ennoble. There is a thirst for truth and ideals among the young that is impossible to slake with statistics, polls or social programs.
As a Catholic, I have found not only the words of the Gospel but also the blending of both happiness and celibacy in virtually all of the priests and nuns I have known to be powerful counterpoints to the current culture. I have made sure my children have regular contact with both. The prophetic words of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae have inspired me in both single and married life and I try to impart this wisdom to my own teens. Human love is both a mystery and a gift. To reduce this to mere sex does a real disservice to all of us, no matter what stage of life we may be in currently.
But will teens listen? As I have found, teenagers tend to fight with parents on everything: curfews, clothes, friends, and of course sex. They want to make their own decisions and even their own mistakes. But disagreements are testing grounds, not failures. And, as I have found, teens secretly appreciate adults who care enough not to give up.
In the end, exhaustive sociological studies like Dubious Conceptions will remain popular but it does not take a Ph.D. to recognize that real love often means just saying “No.”
Nancy Valko, R.N. is based in St. Louis, Mo.