A lot of experts have lately praised reality shows that follow teen moms as they walk through pregnancy, birth, and mothering their children. Some studies indicate that these shows seem to correspond with a reduction in teen pregnancy, presumably because teenagers become better informed of the risks of unprotected sex. (Others are not so sure of this connection.)
Calling these kinds of shows “educational” is a bit of a stretch. They paint a pretty bleak picture of parenthood, one in which the mother tries to hold her infant with one hand and everything else a teenager’s life contains—friends, family, school, work, free time, dating, plans for the future—with the other. Sometimes the stresses of parenting prove to be too much for these teenagers to handle, and a few have succumbed to domestic violence, substance abuse, and additional out-of-wedlock pregnancies.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, “morning” sickness utterly destroyed me. I was forced to lie on the couch as much as possible, willing myself not to hurl. This immobilization led me down a distressing path of obscure Netflix titles. In an attempt to redeem the time, I chose to plow through a season or two of MTV’s Sixteen and Pregnant, a reality series that follows young teenage mothers from their pregnancies to the births of their children. Some episodes follow up with the moms as they raise their newborns and toddlers. Although I was twenty-seven and married, I figured there might be some wisdom to be gleaned from these young mothers’ experiences.
I did learn a few things from the show, though the “wisdom” therein is certainly questionable. I learned that young girls who become mothers are forced to strike a precarious balance between the normal concerns of adolescence and the relentless hormonal rampages of pregnancy. I learned that teenage fathers are prone to vacant stares and monosyllabic answers to questions about their infants’ care. I learned that the parents of these teenage mothers are often uncertain of how to proceed in parenting their daughters, how to love these girls and their babies fully without condoning the behavior that brought the situation into existence. But most of all, time and again, I learned that babies are parasites, sucking physical strength, emotional endurance, and mental energy from their parents. I learned that babies are like atomic bombs, decimating parental trust and obliterating friendships. I learned that babies are tiny jailers, chaining their mothers to their homes in isolation. I learned that babies hold their mommies back from the future with their chubby little hands. I learned, in short, that babies ruin lives. They aren’t sacred souls sent from heaven but howling hindrances to every potentially good thing that lies just out of reach.
For many evangelicals, it’s tempting to look at successes in preventing teenage pregnancies as victories for the pro-life movement. After all, these shows do engage at-risk teenagers in entertaining ways, disseminate important information about reproductive health, and, ultimately, may adjust the bottom line in our favor. It’s reasonable to say that fewer babies are killed because these shows exist, presumably because fewer babies are conceived by young viewers who learn what not to do from the show.
Viewers who watch these shows might find themselves intrigued by the drama or horrified by the gory physicality of birth, but they definitely do not walk away with a deeper understanding of the sanctity of human life. If anything, human lives are devalued in these dramas, as the most intimate moments of parent to child relationships are edited and plastered on screens across America in the name of profits (er, I mean education). These girls and their children are reduced to symbols, and show’s producers are profiting from their unfortunate situations. I don’t care what kind of paycheck they receive or waivers they sign—these girls are being exploited. Consent and compensation do not negate the fact that corporations are benefiting from the misfortunes of others. Let’s be honest: the spirit behind these shows is not to prevent pregnancies. It’s to turn profits. Deeply personal moments are turned into sensational stories, stories that have undoubtedly been heavily edited in order to heighten melodrama and drum up tension. Let’s not pretend that potentially positive results from these shows are anything but a fortunate side effect, convenient justification for misusing teenage mothers.
Let’s find these babies in fifteen years, when they are hopefully still reaping the financial benefits of the choices their mothers made while they were still in the womb. Let’s show them the studies that prove they were instrumental in reducing teenage pregnancies. Let’s ask them, “Do you feel that your life was honored? Do you know that your soul is sacred? Or do you feel exploited? Do you believe that your late-night screeching and ill-timed illnesses were edited and spliced to make you appear to be an unfortunate mistake? Do you feel like a person or a pawn?”
If the pro-life movement exists to escort humans from conception to birth, we can embrace these shows and similar methods as tools to further our cause. But the campaign for life is more nuanced and complex than just preventing abortions. We haven’t won just because a threatened infant sucks in a breath full of air. That’s not a victory. That’s a starting point. Too often, we abandon these mothers on the baby’s birthday, trotting off to find another fetus and will it into the wide world.
Christ’s commands are clear—we are instructed to love our neighbors, neighbors of all ages, lifestyles, and moral standards. We do well to champion the rights of an unborn child. But the problem with reality shows like Sixteen and Pregnant is that they dehumanize their subjects. Unborn babies are our neighbors, but so are Maci, Farrah, Amber, Ebony, Whitney, Catelyn, Jennelle, and the other girls whose sad stories have made it past the cutting room floor. We are required to love them, protect them, and know them as image bearers. The fight for life begins with honoring what we’ve been given, blessing what God has blessed, and loving—not just filming—those who need us.
Photo via MTV.