Young women from low-income backgrounds disproportionately bear the burden of reproductive injustice. This is unsurprising to advocates for reproductive justice. But what may be surprising is that these advocates often further the burden and stigmatize young women in the reproductive rights debates. And this must stop.

A new meme is being circulated by women’s rights advocates on social media that describes young mothers as “totally unqualified” for motherhood and “young, traumatized girls.” The intent is to say the country should allow young women to choose abortion. Yes. Young mothers should have reproductive freedom. But what this does not mean is that advocates should marginalize and stigmatize women who do not (or cannot) choose abortion. ALL pregnant persons have the right to reproductive justice. Teen moms do too.

The Sister Song Collective, Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger describe reproductive justice as all fertile persons having the right to choose to have a child, the right to choose not to have a child, and the right to raise that child in a safe and healthy environment. A safe and healthy environment does not include one with socially created stigma regarding the choice to parent, even at a young age.

Young parents face an immense amount of stigma and — as a teen mom — I too felt stigma and shame. I had my son during my senior year of high school. Some of the most blatant stigma I faced included a local woman who told me, “God didn’t intend for you to have your son,” and a woman on the elevator to my OB-GYN appointment who blatantly gave me a disgusted look as I was obviously pregnant. To this day I internally take a deep breath every time someone says, “Wow, you don’t look old enough to have a (insert son’s age)!” I know people intend to be complimentary, but that statement holds in it an assumption about the age at which you should be a parent.

We must be reminded that rates of unintended teenage childbearing are not going anywhere. In 2018, the CDC reported about 180,000 births (intended and unintended) to women ages 15 to 19. With the Supreme Court dismantling Roe v. Wade, the rates will only increase.

Young parenthood is often predicted by poverty rather than individual choice. Thus, having a child at this age can make it harder to achieve one’s dreams. Especially since it can be difficult to access social services, given the jargon of governmental and nonprofit organizations, difficult navigation of enrollment systems, and the requirements instituted by devastating “personal responsibility” legislation. This legislation punishes single and young parents who try to further their education, making them spend more time away from their children, often in low-paying jobs.

In my own experience, my work with teen moms, and my research, I understand how difficult it is to achieve one’s dreams. Many young parents find that parenthood helps re-prioritize and focus their aspirations. But young parents face so many barriers in achieving those dreams.

In my analysis of a national education dataset, only 30% of 23-year-olds with children were enrolled in college, compared to 72% of their childless peers. Given the hostile resource networks these women are often trying to navigate for themselves and their children, people on both sides of the debate should help these women succeed. Stigmatization and treating teen parents as unqualified without real understanding of the resilient assets and abilities of teenage parents is not an appropriate or humanizing path for reproductive advocates.

Let’s keep fighting for the importance of human rights and include teen parents in the “human” part of human rights.

Kate Westaby is a University of Wisconsin-Madison doctoral student studying access to college for young parents and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. She was a teen mom and also volunteers locally to help young mothers access basic needs and college.

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