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New York’s Teen Pregnancy Campaign Quietly Gets Made Over, Still Misses the Mark

When the Bloomberg administration unveiled its teen pregnancy prevention campaign last March, it was met with immediate backlash. Critics called for officials to cancel the campaign and issue a public apology. A year later, neither have happened.

(Image: Doctor offering medical advice to young couple via Shutterstock)

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When the Bloomberg administration unveiled its teen pregnancy prevention campaign last March, it was met with immediate backlash. Critics decried the campaign for its “shame and blame tactics,” and reproductive justice activists like the New York City Coalition for Reproductive Justice called for New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) to cancel the campaign and issue a public apology. A year later, neither have happened.

The campaign comprised of six print advertisements featuring distressed-looking infants with thought bubbles to represent their inner dialogue. Rhetoric like “Honestly Mom … chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen” made it clear that the campaign wasn’t about empowering teens with access to preventive measures, but rather about shaming teen mothers and blaming them for broader social ills like poverty and poor education.

But as City Hall has transitioned to the de Blasio administration, some subtle but notable shifts have begun to take place regarding the NYC HRA’s teen pregnancy prevention campaign. Most visibly, the original campaign website is now gone. When you try to visit the page, you’re told, “This Page is Not Available.” In fact, you can’t find the original campaign ads on the NYC HRA website anywhere.

In its place, the agency now features a website called Teen Link, which is described as “a place for straight talk on issues that affect New York City teens.” Teen Link is a welcome departure from the previous NYC HRA teen pregnancy prevention site, which was clunky and contained next to no accessible information about sexual and reproductive health care. The Teen Link site is simple and understated, and it makes it far easier to access information about preventing unwanted teen pregnancy.

Teen Link has an entire page dedicated to the Family Planning Benefit Program (FBPB), a free state health insurance program for New Yorkers who need access to family planning services. This is a huge improvement over the previous campaign, which included no mention of the FPBP or accessible information about contraceptive care. Teen Link also links to the New York City Department of Health’s Teen Health page, which provides information on birth control, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and more. A particularly promising sign is that the page lists reproductive health-care clinics in the five boroughs, including abortion clinics.

The site also has a page about teen dating violence, which includes information for teens and parents on domestic violence, the varying types of domestic violence, and warning signs of an abusive relationship, among other information.

It’s unclear if the NYC HRA has entirely abandoned its previous teen pregnancy prevention campaign. The agency has not returned multiple calls for comment about the changes, nor have agency representatives spoken to other media outlets about the changes or what they mean.

For an agency whose previous campaign relied heavily on shaming and emotionally manipulative rhetoric but featured little in the way of information that could actually prevent unplanned teen pregnancies, these shifts are an encouraging sign. Prominently featuring information on the full spectrum of reproductive and sexual health care, including abortion care, shows that the NYC HRA is invested in prevention through information and empowerment.

Yet while Teen Link is a step in the right direction, it unfortunately doesn’t abandon all of the problematic language featured in the previous teen pregnancy campaign. The website has a page on “teen pregnancy facts,” which positions itself as straightforward and objective, but contains some of the same gendered language and shame-based frameworks that plagued the previous campaign. Notably, teen girls/teen mothers are mentioned 11 times on the page, while teen guys/teen fathers are only mentioned four times; the gender-neutral term “teens” appears three times. The messages sent on this webpage are overwhelmingly about or directed at teen girls or teen mothers, far more than being gender-neutral. This frames teen pregnancy as the fault of teen girls first and foremost—a reductive and sexist framework.

What’s more, the language used in the seemingly straightforward facts about teen pregnancy reinforce the gendered nature of teen pregnancy prevention. For instance, the page includes a common talking point in teen pregnancy prevention campaigns, including the NYC HRA’s previous one: “sons of teen mothers are twice as likely to end up in prison.” Notice the language: “teen mothers.” Teen fathers are conspicuously absent from this statement, and therefore exonerated from responsibility. Teen mothers are framed as at fault for their sons’ failure, for their imprisonment. There’s no mention of the school-to-prison pipeline for young men of color or the myriad ways in which our justice system punishes poor men and young men of color. The statement makes clear: It’s the teen mothers’ fault.

Teen Link also reinforces heterosexual marriage as a solution to teen pregnancy. The site states that “eight out of ten fathers don’t marry the mother of their child,” and goes on to call them “absent fathers.” To be an absent father doesn’t simply mean that you didn’t marry the mother of your child; it means that you aren’t involved in your child’s life. This fact is leftover from the NYC HRA’s previous campaign, which used the statistic alongside the shaming rhetoric in an ad that read, “Honestly Mom … chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” Simply put, this “fact” is meant to scold teen girls out of getting pregnant to force their boyfriends to stay with them. It is both paternalistic and reductive, relying on outdated assumptions that a heterosexual nuclear family is the normative family unit.

Both of these “facts” come verbatim from the Stay Teen campaign, which is linked at the bottom of the Teen Link webpage on teen pregnancy facts; the Stay Teen campaign partners with MTV during popular reality programs like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, and is a sister campaign of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. While Stay Teen isn’t nearly as egregious in its shaming and blaming as the NYC HRA’s previous teen pregnancy prevention campaign, it too is riddled with gendered biases and shaming rhetoric. Its tag line is “I love my life; I’m not gonna mess it up with a pregnancy.”

The NYC HRA has begun to move away from its previous campaign, shifting from overtly shaming rhetoric to increased access to information to family planning services. No doubt, this is a significant move; it represents the city’s commitment to increasing access to sexual and reproductive health care for all, including New York City teenagers. Unfortunately, some of the same shaming and unfairly gendered rhetoric remains. Until the NYC HRA completely abandons that, any teen pregnancy prevention effort from the agency still rests on shaky ground.

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