Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy

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As her little boy plays at a day care center across the street, Michelle, an unmarried teenager, is in algebra class, hoping to be the first member of her family to graduate from high school. Will motherhood make this young woman poorer? Will it make the United States poorer as a nation? That's what the voices raised against "babies having babies" would have us think, and what many Americans seem inclined to believe. This powerful book takes us behind the stereotypes, the inflamed rhetoric, and the flip media sound bites to show us the complex reality and troubling truths of teenage mothers in America today.

Would it surprise you to learn that Michelle is more likely to be white than African American? That she is most likely eighteen or nineteen—a legal adult? That teenage mothers are no more common today than in 1900? That two-thirds of them have been impregnated by men older than twenty? Kristin Luker, author of the acclaimed Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, puts to rest once and for all some very popular misconceptions about unwed mothers from colonial times to the present. She traces the way popular attitudes came to demonize young mothers and examines the profound social and economic changes that have influenced debate on the issue, especially since the 1970s. In the early twentieth century, reformers focused people's attention on the social ills that led unmarried teenagers to become pregnant; today, society has come almost full circle, pinning social ills on sexually irresponsible teens.

Dubious Conceptions introduces us to the young women who are the object of so much opprobrium. In these pages we hear teenage mothers fromacross the country talk about their lives, their trials, and their attempts to find meaning in motherhood. The book also gives a human face to those who criticize them, and shows us why public anger has settled on one of society's most vulnerable groups. Sensitive to the fears and confusion that fuel this anger, and to the troubled future that teenage mothers and their children face, Luker makes very clear what we as a nation risk by not recognizing teenage pregnancy for what it is: a symptom, not a cause, of poverty.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A fresh perspective but a patchy read, Luker's latest charts the history of society's obsession with pregnant teens and the social ills they have come to represent. The author of Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Luker is a professor of sociology and law at UC-Berkeley. Her central theme-teenage motherhood should be considered "a measure, not a cause of poverty and social ills"-will be embraced by liberals, but both sides of the debate over teen pregnancy will benefit from the author's analysis of society's prejudice. Luker points out that although older women and white women became the largest group of unwed mothers in the 1970s and '80s, it is "the teenage mother-in particular the black teenage mother-[who] came to personify the social, economic, and sexual trends that... affected almost everyone in America." Although full of dismantled misconceptions and startling statistics, Dubious Conceptions is marred by such unilluminating observations as, "A marriage license is no guarantee that...a father will continue to support his children financially or even come to visit them." Later in the work, Luker interjects the voices of young mothers. Their navet is heartbreaking-"It's even harder than they say it is. I knew it would be hard, but not this hard," says one-and they are the ones who best underscore the importance of Luker's work. Teenage mothers are not a disease but young people whose problems, along with society's, require a real understanding of the issues. (May)
Library Journal
Teenage pregnancy is a major social and political issue in the United States, but Luker (sociology, Univ. of California, Berkeley) points out the flaws in considering it an epidemic. She shows that, while most teen pregnancies occur out of wedlock, the majority of illegitimate infants are borne by older women. Sixty percent of all teenage mothers are 18 or 19 years old; 57 percent of all unmarried mothers are white; and teenagers today know more about contraception and are less likely to get pregnant than they were 30 years ago-but are also more likely to keep their babies. By tracing the history of unwed motherhood in America and the factors that encourage it, she demonstrates that poor teenage women are the most likely to become pregnant and that pregnancy is a measure of poverty, not a cause. The book has an appendix of statistical data, notes, and an extensive bibliography. Unlike Gary E. McCuen's Children Having Children: Global Perspectives on Teenage Pregnancy (McCuen Pubs., 1988), which is international in focus, Dubious Conceptions deals with the situation in the United States. Recommended for all collections.-Barbara M. Bibel, Oakland P.L., Cal.
Kirkus Reviews
Insightful, scholarly, and wonderfully readable analysis of Americans' misconceptions about teenage pregnancy and the impact of these beliefs on public policy.

The unwed teenage mother, especially the black unwed teenage mother, has become the symbol of social, sexual, and economic trends that are causing increasing anxiety for Americans. Sociologist Luker (Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, 1984) asserts that current welfare reforms aimed at reducing teenage pregnancy rates are doomed to fail because they are based on a basic misunderstanding of the problem. In her words, "Early childbearing doesn't make young women poor; rather, poverty makes women bear children at an early age." Luker traces ideas about early childbearing from colonial times to the present and demonstrates how the notion that the country is witnessing an explosion in teenage pregnancy came to have broad acceptance among both policy makers and the general public. Of special interest is her argument that poor women and affluent women are choosing two different solutions to their common problem of raising children in a society that offers little support: Poor women adopt the traditional American pattern of early childbearing, having babies before they enter the work force and relying on family help, whereas affluent women postpone childbearing until they are well established in their careers. Given the circumstances, she says, it makes sense for poor women to have their babies at an early age. The real problem is the underlying social and economic forces that compel women to make such choices. "Society should worry not about some epidemic of `teenage pregnancy' but about the hopeless, discouraged, and empty lives that early childbearing denotes," she concludes. She offers no ready solutions, but her fresh perspective on the issue of teenage pregnancy is an important contribution to the current debate over welfare reform.

Commonsensical, timely, and very persuasive.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674217027
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/1996
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.49 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Kristin Luker is Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law and Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley.

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Table of Contents

1 The Problem and Its Human Face 1
2 Bastardy, Fitness, and the Invention of Adolescence 15
3 Poverty, Fertility, and the State 43
4 Constructing an Epidemic 81
5 Choice and Consequence 109
6 Why Do They Do It? 134
7 Teenage Parents and the Future 175
Appendix 195
Notes 203
Selected Bibliography 263
Index 277
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