Shame and Teen Pregnancy

Does shame perform a useful social function? Is it legitimate for the state to engender feelings of shame to further public goals? Is the answer to either of these questions affirmative, in the case of teen pregnancy?

These are the key questions raised by the decision by New York officials to use controversial advertisements that highlight the impact of teen pregnancy on the life chances of the child. The apparently ‘liberal’ response has been to rail against Mayor Michael Bloomberg for shaming teen parents. The very idea of passing moral judgment makes many people of a liberal orientation queasy, especially in the U.S.

I have argued, by contrast, that there is a liberal case for shame as a form of non-coercive regulation towards better choices – including avoiding teen pregnancy.

So, question 1: does shame ever have any positive role to play in a liberal society? Yes: it is in fact a valuable form of non-coercive regulation of behavior. As a general rule, we hope that illegal activities are also shameful ones. In many cases the shame might do more work than the sheriff. Drunk driving is a case in point.

Shame also helps to regulate activities that are legal, but unwise – either because of their implications for the individual themselves, or, especially, for innocent second parties. Racists and homophobes should be made to feel ashamed of themselves. But surely so should those who hit their child, or surround them with smoke, or drink heavily or smoke when pregnant with them.

The second question is whether official bodies have any business being in the shame game. You might agree that shame can be useful, but disagree with state-sponsored shame. Given that tax dollars are being deployed in a campaign like the current New York one, the decision has to be clearly justified – on the grounds of both efficacy and legitimacy. New York has tested its ads extensively, and is confident that they will have an impact by making teens think harder about choices leading to a risk of pregnancy. Time will tell if they are right, but we certainly not assume they are wrong.

Even if the ads work, the legitimacy question remains. The state should only be using shame to combat a legal activity or choice when there is real, significant harm involved, not for the individual but for other individuals or the broader community.

There is, for instance, no good liberal argument against ads invoking shame to try and stop people hitting their children or smoking while pregnant. Real harm is being done to real people. Government officials should exercise great care when it comes to the use of shame. But they should not rule it out.

The third question is whether shame can legitimately be attached to teen pregnancy, if there is reason to believe (as New York does) that is will help to lower rates. Is teen pregnancy really bad enough to justify such an emotional campaign? The short answer: yes. Not because of the impact on the parent, but on the child. Having kids in your teens actually has a small influence on life chances, as Alex Sanger shows in Beyond Choice: Reproductive Freedom in the 21st Century, albeit for the depressing reason that the youngsters most likely to become teen parents have such narrow life chances anyway.

So the New York campaign focuses on what teen parenthood means for the child. They are not saying, ‘becoming a parent in your teens will be bad for you’; they are saying ‘becoming a parent in your teens will be bad for your child’. And that is not a claim: it is a fact.

One last, vital point: there is no justification for doing less to help teen parents or their their children because they have made bad choices. We need, in fact, to do very much more to improve the life chances of children born to teen parents. Shame legitimately attaches to teen pregnancy. It is also a crying shame that so many kids born to teens are effectively abandoned to their fate.