It's not that the heart-tugging subway ads in New York City warning against teen pregnancy are misleading – although they are. It's that they are making the wrong argument, at least from a strategic perspective.
The ads depict crying, miserable-looking babies, with grim predictions for their futures, such as "I'm twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen." That may be statistically accurate, but it's not necessarily true. That is, it may be the case that children born to teenage mothers (or fathers – though it seems clear the ads at directed at girls, expecting them to be the ones to put on the sexual brakes) are less likely to graduate from high school. But it does not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. The real factor there may quite possibly be family income. For all the national outrage over teacher quality and test scores, for example, the research shows that income is a far more significant driver in terms of how children perform in school. It stands to reason that a teenage parent isn't pulling down a law partner's salary, so it's not a surprise that kids born to teenagers are less likely to finish school.
But does that argument stop children from having children? Tragically, it seems not. Nearly one in five children born to mothers aged 15-19 is not the first child of the young parents, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control. There's some improvement – of the 365,000 teens who gave birth in 2010, some 18.3 percent were on their second child, down from 19.5 percent in 2007. The CDC points out that part of the problem is the failure to use the most effective forms of birth control, and lists tubal ligations and vasectomies as options.
That's hardly rational – a young person is not going to have surgery to avert a second, unwanted pregnancy, even if the surgery is reversible with another surgery. Having both potential parents use barrier forms of birth control makes more sense, and instills a sense of responsibility for both, instead of leaving it all to the female. But how to discourage young teens from having sex at all, and older teenagers from having unprotected sex? Bemoaning the future for the children is not going to do it.
How about showing a picture of some loser boyfriend, the guy who seemed so cute and impressive when he was playing sports and talking to you at your school locker, lying on the couch with an ever-growing pot belly and drinking beer while the girl takes care of the kid? How about listing the statistics not of the kids' educational futures, but those of the parents? Not finishing high school is indeed a sad prognosis for the children of children, but let's not forget the damage done to the mother herself. What chance does she have of finishing high school – let alone going to college and getting a decent job? What choices will she realistically have if she wants to dump the father – assuming he decided to stick around – if she has no economic security of her own?
New York is smart to discourage teen pregnancy, which puts a burden on society as a whole as well as the individuals. But the message should be directed at the realities of young parenthood for the teenagers.