Babies Having Babies: The National Epidemic of Teenage Pregnancy and the Case for Federal Intervention

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 11:50 AM
Conference Room C (Sheraton New York)
Jenna Healey, Yale University
In 1976, as headlines across the country declared a crisis of rising teenage pregnancy rates, Jimmy Carter made a campaign promise to tackle this “epidemic” of teenage pregnancy head on. While teenage pregnancy was not an obvious target for federal intervention, Carter’s declaration brought the regulation of teenage fertility firmly into the realm of governmental responsibility. This responsibility was first institutionalized during Carter’s administration by the passage of the Adolescent Health, Services, and Pregnancy Prevention and Care Act of 1978, which in turn led to the establishment of the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs (OAPP).

But why were Congress and the Carter Administration so convinced that teenage pregnancy was a matter of national importance? In this paper, I argue that the teenage mother was such a compelling figure because she represented both present and potential tragedies. The teenage mother could symbolize the lost innocence of a child – a baby having a baby – but she could also be the forerunner of the dreaded “welfare queen,” forever dependent on the state. In this sense, the “in-between” age of the teenage mother created a doubly compelling justification for federal intervention. While both symbols were loaded with race and class connotations, they were deployed interchangeably in state documents to garner support for the cause. Carter’s legislation was less concerned with pregnancy prevention than with the support of teenage mothers in hopes that the state could mitigate both the immediate and potential consequences of adolescent childbearing, including unemployment, welfare dependency, and poor health outcomes. It wasn’t until the passage of the Reagan-era Adolescent Family Life Act in 1981 that the focus of the OAPP shifted from support of teenage mothers to the regulation of adolescent sexuality, deploying a moral – as opposed to a humanitarian or economic – justification for federal intervention.