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Preventing birth to teenage parents is discriminatory

The UK government announced this week a multi-million pound program to make contraception more easily available to young people and to reduce teenage pregnancies. Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe.

If they are effective, these measures will prevent the birth of a large number of children whose lives would have been worth living. Is it discriminatory to try to prevent the birth of children to teenage mothers? What message does this send to those children in the community who have been born to teenagers about how we value their lives?

We might also note that it is normal in traditional societies for
humans to conceive for the first time and give birth soon after
puberty. The current trend in western societies for older parenthood is
very unusual, and to the extent to which it is driven by medical
intervention, unnatural.

There are a number of reasons why we might choose to try to prevent
teenage pregnancies. One concern that is expressed is for the welfare
of the child. However children born to teenage parents, even if they
have some significant disadvantages, usually have lives that are in
themselves worthwhile. Such children do not say to us (usually) that
they wish they had not been born, or request euthanasia. Almost all (if
not all) of the disadvantages that they face are socially driven, and
as such are potentially amenable to social interventions. For example
financial support to their families, or programs to provide teenage
parents with the skills and resources they need to care for their
children. We might feel that we should work to alleviate social
disadvantage rather than trying to prevent the birth of individuals who
might suffer it.

A second concern frequently expressed is for the welfare of the parents
(particularly the mothers) of such children. The care of a child
represents a significant burden upon the parents. It may dramatically
limit the choices that the parents have available to them in terms of
employment and education. It may substantially affect the plans that
they had for their lives, or prevent them leading the lives that others
had hoped that they would lead. However it might be argued that such
attitudes are selfish and self-centred. Parents and prospective parents
should be guided not by their own welfare – rather they should think of
their child. As already highlighted, the life of the child born to
teenage parents is not likely to be filled with unremitting pain and
suffering, even if it is not the best life possible. Moreover many
teenage parents find fulfillment and reward in their parenthood. Their
lives may be substantially richer for having had a child, and some say
that this experience is one that they would never regret. On this
argument it is unreasonable to place the parents’ potential ahead of
the potential life of the child.

Finally we might have concerns about what such a program says about the
value of the lives of children born to teenagers. If we spend millions
of pounds to try to prevent the birth of children like them, it might
be seen to be expressing an attitude that we do not want them, or that
we wish that they were not amongst us.

When we make decisions about which future persons will live – children
to teenage parents, or children with disability, the types of
objections cited above can be expressed. If we think that such objections are convincing, we should not try to prevent the birth of
individuals with disability, nor children to teenage parents. If we think nevertheless that preventing teenage births is ethical, then this may give us some important insights into debates about disability.


Contraception campaign aims to cut teenage pregnancy
Guardian 6/2/8

The teenage pregnancy challenge
BBC 6/2/8

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Dom,

    A couple of thoughts.

    You ask, regarding the proposed new measures, “What message does this send to those children in the community who have been born to teenagers about how we value their lives?” One thought might be that it sends the message that their lives are not worth living. But I don’t think that is the case: no one could reasonably suppose that the government has introduced these measures on the grounds that children born to teenaged parents have lives not worth living. On the other hand, it may well send the message children born to teenage parents have a lower chance of enjoying a happy and healthy life than would the children born if their parents had delayed childbearing. This message may be mildly troubling. But it may also be true. And if it is, the government would have at least a prima facie justification for their new policy: it is acting just like the doctor who recommends that a woman delay pregnancy until after she has recovered from some foetus-harming infection.

    You also note that an attitude of concern for the welfare of parents may be “selfish and self-centred”. It strikes me that it may be when it is an attitude held by the parents in question. But it is not clear why it would be selfish for the government to care about the welfare of parents, and to trade it off against the welfare of potential future children.

  2. Tom,

    thanks for raising these objections. They are among many which can be made to the arguments that I have cited.
    When we make decisions about which future persons will live, whether this is in relation to preventing teenage pregnancy, preventing disability, or in relation to decisions about environmental change, focussing on whether specific individuals will be harmed by the decision leads to counterintuitive conclusions. Parfit neatly highlights this problem in Reasons and Persons.

    Also as you highlight, the expressivist objection can be easily overcome.

    The reason for the piece is to see how far arguments that are used in debates about prevention of disability can cross over into other questions that affect who should live. In general we think that it is an uncontestably good thing for us to try to prevent teenage pregnancies. What I have tried to show is that some of the arguments from disability debates apply equally to this problem, and the counterintuitive extensions of such arguments provide some reason to refute them.


  3. Disability and Teen Pregnancy

    Are there relevant differences which undermine the analogy? Disability is a feature of the potential child, whereas in preventing teenage pregnancies our focus is simply on a feature of the mother…

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