It is reported that about 1000 teenagers a week become pregnant in Canada-or, over 50 000 a year. Of these about 45 per cent have abortions and 10 per cent give their children up for adoption. Of the 65 000 legal abortions obtained in Canada each year 30 per cent (or about 20 000) are performed on women under 20 years of age.
Conventional sex education, though flourishing in comparison with earlier decades, seems impotent in the face of such numbers. Indeed reflecting on a similar problem in the U.S., the editors of Family Planning Perspectives noted in 1980 that “more teenagers are using contraceptives and using them more consistently than ever before. Yet the number and rate of premarital adolescent pregnancies continues to rise.” Another study goes further in concluding that the increase in unplanned pregnancy and abortion seems statistically linked to the general increased dissemination of conventional sex education information to teenagers.
Apart from the obvious problems arising from teenage pregnancy, those arising from teenage abortion are beginning to emerge as even more threatening. In a co-authored article, Doctors Myre Sym and Robert Neisser pointed out that, while psychiatric complications preceding and following maternity can be satisfactorily managed, post-abortion psychoses are more difficult to manage and of longer duration. These authors also disclosed that the suicide rate among women of all ages appears paradoxically to be lowest among pregnant women. The experience of having an abortion, on the other hand, has been increasingly associated both with mental illness and specifically with both suicide and attempted suicide. In general, the suicide rate among adolescents in Canada has increased fourfold in the last 20 years. According to press reports, B.C. leads Canada and the U.S. in violent death among adolescents, including those associated with an escalating suicide rate.
The incidence of teenage pregnancy is a complex one that will not be solved by simply presenting teenagers with information on contraception. In this connection, the Social Council and Review Council of British Columbia reported in 1980 that the “prevention of unwanted pregnancies requires more than just birth control information.” The report went on to quote Prof. Margaret Arcus of the University of B.C.’s School of Family and nutritional Sciences, who said that the “issue is much more complex and involves a positive sense of self-worth and respect for others.”
Further evidence of the complexity of teenage pregnancy comes from Dr. Sidney Segal, a Vancouver pediatrician, who has been quoted as saying that up to half of all teenage pregnancies are intentional, for reasons which have to do with loneliness, rebelliousness, and a variety of other motivations. Thus, sex education booklets which merely disseminate birth control information, like those made available by the Federal Department of Health and Welfare in the 1970s, are a little use in situations like these.
How to say no
What does seem to help is good prenatal care and good follow-up. Adequate prenatal care is often lacking in the case of teenagers- for reasons which many social agencies might find surprising. Diane Sacks, Acting Director of the Adolescent Clinic at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, for example, has observed that many girls wait until 20 weeks into the pregnancy before presenting themselves at the Clinic “for fear of being forced to have an abortion.” Such a comment speaks volumes of her society and its medical and social institutions. In any case, a teenage mother who presents herself for prenatal care when she is already 20 weeks pregnant has obviously missed out on getting proper medical attention during the most important period of the pregnancy.
The follow-up by society on teenagers who have kept their children is also inadequate. Pilot projects like the one at Sir Charles Tupper High School in Vancouver, where teenagers can finish high school while their children are cared for in a school daycare, are few and far-between. The completion of their education is the single most-important factor in eventually putting these women on their feet, and school systems in general appear to pay little heed. According to Victoria School Board Chairperson, Carol Pickup, teenage mothers must be given the opportunity to stay in school in order to avoid life on welfare.
Another kind of solution is that offered by the John Hopkins center for School-Aged Mothers and Their Infants in Baltimore. The program at Johns Hopkins addresses the teenager’s total situation, and has been successful in helping teenage women to have healthier babies as well as motivating these mothers not to become pregnant again until they are older and more independent command of their lives. The program involves an exploration of why these teenagers become pregnant as well as offering guidance to the young women and ”how to say no” in future and still keep their boyfriends.
As far as abortion is concerned, the escalating rate of abortion among teenagers in Canada, together with the growing incidence of repeat abortions (around 16 per cent at the present time), is a sign of this country’s failure to come to grip with a major social problem. The fact that many Canadian hospitals offer abortion as a quick fix may merely be aggravating the situation. If, as was demonstrated earlier, the incidence of teenage pregnancy teenagers in Canada, together with the growing incidence of repeat abortions (around 16 per cent at the present time), is a sign of this country’s failure to come to grip with a major social problem. The fact that many Canadian hospitals offer abortion as a quick fix may merely be aggravating the situation. If as was demonstrated earlier, the incidence of teenage pregnancy is related to the girl’s sense of self worth, then how can that image of self be enhanced by society’s intimating through easy access to abortion that the life of the child she carries is worthless?
Moreover, it is now becoming clear that the abortion decision is often made not simply by the mother, but by adults including the professionals, around her. Physicians, for example have often observed that whereas a teenage girl might elect to bring her pregnancy to term, perhaps with a view to putting the child out for adoption, the girl’s parents may show up a week later adamantly demanding an abortion for their daughter-s often as not because of the potential for embarrassment to them should the pregnancy continue. Men, as well boyfriends and husbands are often instrumental in the abortion decision, and often for reasons which have little to do with the welfare of either the teenage girl or her child. In this connection, teenage girl or her child. In this connection, Dr. Donovan Brown, a Regina physician, testified at the Borowski trial in 1983 that there always seemed to be “outside family pressures” inducing women to obtain abortions.
In conclusion, it would seem that the approaches taken by the medical community and by social and educational agencies in this country with respect to teenage pregnancy and unsuccessful. What teenagers require, the research appears to suggest, is an approach to them as people who have value and by extension whose children have value. Thus, the reaction of Canadian society in providing easy abortion and in financially penalizing single mothers-as Nova Scotia in 1983-is likely to prolong and widen the present malaise.
Whether or not the law on abortion is changed in the near term, our attitude to is can change. After all smoking is not illegal in our society, but the attitude towards it and the formidable educational effort directed against it have led to a significant decline in smoking over the last 15 years. The same sort of result is possible with respect to both teenage pregnancy and teenage abortion. All that we require is the resolve to act; the need to act should by now become evident.
Ross Labrie, Ph.D., is president of North Shore Pro-Life. This article is an edited version of a brief submitted to the Senate of Canada’s Committee on Youth.