Growing up in Texas, I cannot count on one hand the number of friends who became teenage mothers; if you include acquaintances, that count reaches 22. I watched these intelligent and bright girls in my life lose opportunities to attend college and, in some cases, fail to graduate high school. Many of them, now young women, still do not work as they stay home to cut child care costs.
It wasn’t until I graduated college, moved out of my lower-class neighborhood and out of Texas that I learned this is far from the norm. Texas has an abnormally high rate of teen pregnancy — 34.6 per 1,000 births per year. Additionally, we have the highest rate of “repeat adolescent births;” 22 percent of teenage mothers have another child before they turn 18, according to the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. These girls are more likely to remain below the poverty line as adults, to rely on public assistance and to drop out of high school.
Texas literally and figuratively traps these girls and their children in lives of poverty through the policies we create and the way in which we regulate their lives.
Texas state law prohibits adolescent mothers from consenting to their own healthcare decisions for services ranging from mental health care needs to contraceptive use — even when those mothers are the consenting adult to their own child’s care. However, once they marry — even if still under the age of 18 — they are suddenly deemed “capable” of consenting to these services. Don’t worry, you read that right — they have more healthcare rights as child brides than as an autonomous teenage girls.
These draconian policies — which sound straight out of the 1950s — prioritize marriage over the health of individuals and children. They are based on outdated norms about childbearing outside of marriage, with disastrous effects on the health of these girls and their children. Texas and Utah are the only two states that still have these laws; we are embarrassingly behind the curve.
I do not mean to shame teen mothers because they are unmarried — quite the opposite. The irony is that these policies, designed to “incentivize unwed mothers…into matrimony,” exacerbate the exact outcomes they seek to prevent, given that 87 percent of these “repeat adolescent births” occur outside of the marital context.
Any adolescent can purchase condoms, without parental consent. Yet, we make adolescent girls scale figurative barriers not only to gain access to appointments in the first place, but also in requiring their parents to consent to more-reliable contraceptive methods than condoms. Barriers to accessing contraceptive methods with lower failure rates, such as LARCs (Long Acting Reversible Contraception) and birth control pills, contributes heavily to the rates of repeat births.
So why do laws preventing parenting teen moms from consenting to contraceptive services exist? The answer lies entirely in Texas politics.
Amidst the futile efforts to regulate bathrooms and the stalemate arguments that plagued the last Texas legislative session, a sensible bipartisan bill tackling this exact issue flew under the radar. House Bill 1373, sponsored by Sarah Davis, R-Houston, and Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, proposed allowing certain minors (pregnant, parenting and armed forces-serving teenagers) to consent to their own medical, dental, psychological and surgical treatments. However, this common-sense bill never made it out of the House State Affairs committee. When the 86th legislative session rolls around in 2019, constituents can push their legislators to re-introduce this bill, to move it to a vote and to advocate for affected youth. Most importantly, we can make this a priority for the 2019 legislative agenda.
It’s high time we equip adolescent girls — particularly vulnerable and parenting youth — with the right to make decisions over their own bodies, just as they can for their own children. Adolescents can access contraceptive services without parental consent in 32 states, and an additional 14 states grant these rights to parenting teens, but not to all adolescents.
Texas is one of the few that offers neither option, yet we wonder why our adolescent pregnancy rates remain high?
As a pioneer in innovation and a center for health that draws people from all over the world, it’s hypocritical that our own youth don’t have their own healthcare rights. It’s time we take care of our own, address these backward policies and empower adolescents and teen mothers to make their own healthcare decisions. Only then can we expect to see better health outcomes for these youth and their children.