abortion/reproduction

Cross-posted at Ms. and Family Inequality.

In the early 1990s, Arline Geronimus proposed a simple yet profound explanation for why Black women on average were having children at younger ages than White women, which she called the “weathering hypothesis.”

It goes like this: Racial inequality takes a cumulative toll on Black women, increasing the chance they will have health problems at younger ages. So, early childbearing might pose health risks for White women, but for Black women it makes more sense to start earlier — before their health declines. Although it’s hard to measure the motivations of people having children, her suggestion was that early childbearing reflected a combination of cumulative cultural wisdom and individual adaptation (for example, reacting to the health problems experienced by their 40-something mothers).

She showed the pattern nicely with data from Michigan in 1989, in which the percentage of first births that were “very low birthweight,” increased with the age of Black women, but decreased for White women, through their twenties:

Source: My graph from Geronimus (1996).

If the hypothesis is correct, she reasoned, the pattern would be stronger among poor women, who experience more health problems, which is also what she found.

The most recent national data, for 2007, continue to show Black women have their first children, on average, younger than White women: age 22.7 versus 26.0. And the infant mortality rates, by mothers’ age, also show the lowest risk for White women at older ages than for Black women:

Source: My graph from CDC data.

Note that, for White women, mothers have children in the early thirties face less than half the infant-mortality risk of those having children as teenagers. For Black women, waiting till their lowest-risk age — the late 20s — yields only a 14% reduction in infant mortality risk. So it looks like waiting is much more important for White women, at least as far as health conditions are concerned.

The implications are profound. If you base your perceptions on the White pattern, it makes sense to discourage early childbearing for health reasons. But if you look at the Black pattern, it becomes more important to try to improve health problems at early ages — and all the things that contribute to them — rather than (or in addition to) trying to delay first births.

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Cohen’s previous posts featured on SocImages include ones on the recession and divorce datathe relationship between cell phone use and driving deathsmeasuring the number of welfare recipients, delusions of gender dimorphism, and the gender binary in children’s books.

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control (via Family Inequality) reveals that boys report less sex education than girls.

What teenagers report learning from school:

What teenagers report learning from their parents:

Compared to boys, then, girls report more guidance from school and significantly more from their parents. This probably reflects cultural ideas that boys naturally desire sex, have a positive sense of their own sexuality, and that nothing really bad can happen to them; in contrast, the risk that sex poses to girls’ reputations and the possibility of sexual violence and pregnancy often shape how educators and parents manage their emerging sexualities.

Or it might be an artifact of self-reporting.  Thoughts?

See also our popular post on STI, pregnancy, and abortion rates in the U.S. versus select European countries (hint: the U.S. doesn’t come out smelling like roses).

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Centers for Disease Control report that pregnancy rates for U.S. girls age 15-19 vary quite significantly by state: from 66/1,000 in Mississippi to 20/1,000 in New Hampshire (dark and light green represent states with teen pregnancy rates lower than the U.S. average; dark and light purple represent states in which it is higher):

The map shows that, on average, southern states tend to have higher teen pregnancy rates than others.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that the disparity can be explained, in part, by the fact that Blacks and Latinos tend to have higher rates of teen pregnancy than other racial groups such that states with higher proportions of Blacks and Latinos would have higher rates.  However, rates among different racial/ethnic populations also vary quite tremendously by state.  Among white teenagers the teen pregnancy rate ranged from 4/1,000 (in the District of Columbia) to 55/1,000 (in Mississippi), among Black teenagers, it ranged from 17/1,000 (in Hawaii) to 95/1,000 (in Wisconsin), and among Latinas it ranged from 31/1,000 (in Maine) to 188/1,000 (in Alabama).

Race, then, doesn’t predict differences in rates of teen pregnancy all by itself.  In fact, White teenagers are more likely to get pregnant in some states than Black and Latina teenagers in others.  There must be something region- or state-specific driving teen pregnancy rates.

The CDC doesn’t mention sex education, but Mike Lillis at The Hill compared teen pregnancy rates to a sex education policy report by the Guttmacher Institute.  He writes:

All five states with the highest teen birth rates have adopted policies requiring that abstinence be stressed when taught as part of sex education, HIV education or both, the group found. Only one of the five states (New Mexico) mandates that sex education be a part of students’ curriculum.

Of the four states with the lowest teen birth rates, none requires that abstinence be stressed to students, according to Guttmacher.

For your perusal, the CDC data, by state and race (# of pregnancies/1,000 girls 15-19):

Hat tip to Annie Shields at Ms. magazine.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

An iVillage slide show featuring birth control advice for women, sent in by Corina C., is a good demonstration of the norming of a particular life course.  First, organized by the decade of life, the slide show starts with women in their 20s.  No sex for teenagers (at least not any that the slide show is going to acknowledge).

“In Your 20s… Because You Need to Get in the Habit”:

Second, the slide show assumes that women will be having children in their 30s, not in their 20s, and not in their 40s.

“In Your 30s… Because You’ll Want to Start a Family Soon” (not maybe or if):

“In Your 40s… Once You’re Through Making Babies” (reiterating that you will have babies and also that you’ll be finished by then):


Finally, the slide show acknowledges and even embraces the possibility of a relationship ending, presumably due to death or divorce (but apparently only after those kids are up and out of the house).

“At 50 and Beyond… When You Start a New Relationship”:

By organizing birth control needs according to age, the slide show teaches viewers a socially-approved timeline for our sexual, marital, and reproductive lives.   Teen sex is invisible, having children in your 30s is ideal, and the end of a relationship is an option but, as Corina points out, not having children is not.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Sociologist Amy Schalet has done wonderful research comparing American and Dutch approaches to teen sexuality.  Among other fascinating findings, she has shown that, American parents approach their children’s sexual initiation with fear and loathing; while Dutch parents treat sexuality like any other realm of life that a child must learn to manage.  Accordingly, most American teenagers hide their virginity loss from their parents, furtively popping the cherry in risky situations, often without protection against pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs).  In contrast, most Dutch teenagers lose their virginity in their own bedrooms with their parents approval… and condoms.

This different approach to teen sexuality helps explain the dramatic differences between the U.S. and the Netherlands in rates of contraceptive use, teen pregnancy, abortion, and STI transmission.  Check it this data from Advocates for Youth:

You can read the full report here (thanks to Du Hoang for the specific link!).

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


The ad below is the first-ever British TV commercial advertising abortion services family planning options, including abortion.  It is being shown late at night and says:

If you’re late for your period, you could be pregnant. If you’re pregnant and not sure what to do, Marie Stopes International can help.

I don’t remember ever seeing such a commercial. Condoms, birth control pills, pregnancy tests, herpes medication, HPV vaccines, tampons, Viagra, and sex, sex, sex, YES. Abortion, NEVER. Salon seems to claim that it’s the first of its kind anywhere.

Have you ever seen such a thing where you live? What do you imagine are the politics around the airing of a commercial advertising abortion services?

Via Feministing.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Pew Research Center, in a report on American motherhood released this month, reported that 35% of people say that their first child “just happened.”

I think this is fascinating in light of the fact that many Americans are generally committed to the idea that we control our fertility.  Safe(r) sex and family planning campaigns tell us that, if we make the proper choices, then we will (very probably) not have an unplanned pregnancy.  They tend to downplay the fact that even the most effective methods of pregnancy prevention are not foolproof.  Let’s call this the ideology of near-perfect control of reproduction.

In fact, about half of all births occur as a result of an unplanned pregnancy.  So the fact that 1/3rd of parents say their first child “just happened” may actually be an under count.  An ideology of near-perfect control of reproduction, however, makes it seem really surprising that so many parents would choose that response.

Then again… maybe the ideology of near-perfect control of reproduction is a luxury afforded mostly to privileged classes.  The Pew report also offered data on who said that their first child “just happened”:

Notice that people with less education and lower incomes were more likely to have their first child by “accident” than people with more education and higher incomes.  They were also more likely to have their first child as a teenager.  These are the groups that we might expect, on average, to have less knowledge about birth control and less access to (especially more effective forms of) birth control.  Given that our society is class segregated, members of these groups may also be surrounded by other people who “just happened” to have kids.  The ideology of near-perfect control of reproduction, then, may not be as strong.  This may also contribute to a willingness to admit that it “just happened,” instead of re-fashioning the introduction of parenting as a fully conscious choice.

Hat tip to Philip Cohen at Family Inequality.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Dmitriy T.M. alerted us to a new report by the Guttmacher Institute on the characteristics of women who have abortions.  There’s lots of interesting data there, including the figure below that tells us how women are paying for their abortions.

According to the study, 33% of the women in their study were uninsured, but 57% of them paid for their abortions out-of-pocket.  Why?

I was able to track down two reasons.   First, medicaid only covers abortions in the cases of rape and incest or if a woman might die if she proceeds with the pregnancy.  Second, according to another report by Guttmacher, 15 states deny or restrict the coverage of private insurance companies or the insurance plans of employees of the state:

The fact that non-therapeutic abortion is not covered by medicaid and by some private insurers, of course, hurts poor women and their families the most.  While middle and upper class women can always find the money to make up for the gap in their insurance, poor women may not be able to do so.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.