“I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” the text next to his head reads.
In another poster, a dark-skinned little girl casts her eyes to the sky and says, “Honestly Mom … chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?”
These images, part of a public education campaign targeting teenage pregnancy that the city unveiled this week, are drawing mounting criticism from reproductive health advocates, women who had children as teenagers, and others who say they reinforce negative stereotypes about teenage mothers without offering any information to help girls prevent unplanned pregnancies.
The criticism escalated Wednesday into a sharp exchange between the mayor’s office and Planned Parenthood of New York City, typically an ally of the administration on reproductive health matters. Planned Parenthood issued a statement denouncing the poster campaign, saying that it ignored the racial, economic and social factors that contribute to teenage pregnancy and instead stigmatized teenage parents and their children.
The mayor’s office responded, saying that it was “past time” to be “value neutral” about teenage pregnancy and that it was important to “send a strong message that teen pregnancy has consequences — and those consequences are extremely negative, life-altering and most often disproportionately borne by young women.”
Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, said the organization was “shocked and taken aback” by the tone of the new campaign.
“Hurting and shaming communities is not what’s going to bring teen pregnancy rates down,” she added.
She said that the campaign’s message — that teenage pregnancy leads to poverty — was backward.
“It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy,” she said.
The posters — many of which bear the tagline, “Think being a teen parent won’t cost you?” and emphasize the expense of raising a child — have been put up in bus shelters in neighborhoods with high rates of teenage pregnancy and will be installed in subways next week.
The Bloomberg administration has aggressively sought to reduce teenage pregnancy by mandating sex education in public schools and by empowering high school nurses to provide birth control, including the morning-after pill.
The city’s teenage pregnancy rate has declined by 27 percent in the past decade, roughly equaling the national rate of decline. Nearly 9 out of 10 teenage pregnancies in the city are unplanned, according to the Bloomberg administration.
According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, a child born to a teenage mother who has not finished high school and is not married is nine times more likely to be poor than a child born to an adult who has finished high school and is married.
Robert Doar, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration, said the campaign’s goal was to send a message about personal responsibility that would resonate with teenagers.
“We think it’s important to speak frankly and in a way that people will hear about the responsibilities of parenthood and the responsibilities of raising a child,” he said.
The city spent about two years and over $400,000 producing the campaign, which included hiring a marketing firm to conduct focus groups with teenagers, as well as with the parents of teenagers, and with parents who had children when they were teenagers.
The posters include a number to text to receive facts about teenage pregnancy and to play a game about a pregnant teenager, Anaya, and her boyfriend, Louis. Via text messages, the game chronicles a series of challenges facing Anaya and Louis and asks the person playing the game what they should do, which the player indicates by texting a response. The humiliations Anaya faces drive home a message that teenage pregnancy leads to family conflict, social isolation and poverty.
“My BFF called me a ‘fat loser’ at prom,” Anaya says in a typical exchange. (The city has since changed “fat loser” to simply “loser.”) In other examples, Anaya’s father calls her “stupid,’” and her best friend stops talking to her.
Carolina Pichardo, 30, of Manhattan, who became pregnant with her daughter from an unplanned pregnancy when she was 18, said she was upset and angry when she saw the ads, because they reinforced the shame that she said teenage mothers already felt too strongly. “I felt like a statistic,” she said of becoming a teenage mother. “When they use those same statistics against us, it doesn’t really help, because we already feel like we’re a part of it.”