New PSAs Treat Pregnant Women's Bodies Like Public Property

We as a nation just can't seem to trust women to make their own choices, especially when their reproductive organs are involved.

It's not earth-shattering to point out a good deal of language tossed around by our nation's lawmakers, major media presences and religious institutions, is detrimental to the agency of women.  The wave of laws restricting abortion rights in 49 states often portray the woman as nothing more than a vessel for a fetus from the point of conception  

But recently, rhetoric has taken the issue even further. Current public education campaigns imply that we have a civic duty to tell women when they should get pregnant and reinforce the idea that pregnant women's bodies are public property.

Pregnant women have long dealt with strangers examining their every habit—especially their drinking. Enforcement of criminal punishments against pregnant women who used drugs while pregnant or want to have vaginal births despite the advice of doctors further contribute to the troubling idea that people other than the pregnant woman should be able to tell her what to do with her body.  

Into this environment comes the the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy's report "Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America." The report declares there is a "success sequence" to life. This sequence involves achieving a certain level of education, getting a job, getting married, then having children, in that order. Backed up by extensive data and painting itself as representing the best interest of society as a whole, there is something fundamentally off in what this report suggests.

First, there's the idea that there is a singular prescription for success—one that involves a straight shot from high school graduation to children and a white picket fence.

The report tells men and women what age is the most "successful" to have children. This goes beyond mere statistical observation— it's a point that tells women when it is appropriate to do what with their bodies. The report isn't just telling women what to do to keep healthy once they're pregnant, it's telling them how to live their lives.  

If we don't challenge authoritative suggestions like those presented in the study, which intends to be helpful and well-meaning, they slip through the cracks. They snowball into larger, scarier issues. Like a public ad campaign telling single mothers they're doomed.

Recently, New York City began running controversial ads targeted at young women with the aim of discouraging teen pregnancy. One ad portrays a young child saying: "Honestly Mom...chances are he won't stay with you. What happens to me?" This ad, likely intended to spark a strong reaction, deserves its bad rap for several reasons.

For one, the woman's agency—her free will as a thinking person rather than an object to be acted upon—is entirely absent in this scenario. The hypothetical mother is impregnated and then left high and dry with no say in the matter but all the responsibility of cleaning up the mess.

The mother needs the mayor's office to step in and hand her back her free will. Statistics about teen pregnancy aside, it helps no one to shock and shame young women by telling them they are—and always will be—the victims and objects of men. 

To borrow a term, the real "success sequence" to challenging gender inequality begins with calling out language that diminishes a woman's perceived ability to make her own smart decisions.

If we want to implement real change with regard to women's perceived peoplehood, we have to learn to stop telling women, in even the most subtle and unconscious ways, what to do with their bodies. 


Photo of Washington DC's teen mom ad campaign via RH Reality Check.

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6 Comments Have Been Posted

This article makes me close

This article makes me close my legs a little tighter.

damning not only the city, but also HRA

I talked with members of my feminist collective talked about these ads recently. It's really important to remember that these are not generic city funded ads, but that these are specifically ads coming from the HRA (public benefits) office. The message, to us, was that the HRA doesn't want to support unwed/single teen moms through public benefits, which is exactly the opposite message they should be sending. Instead of focusing on sex, family planning, and abortion, they should DO THEIR JOBS and support women no matter their reproductive choices.

How great would it be if HRA-funded ads educated women on the public benefits available to them that might help them cover their housing, food, childcare, and health costs? How great would it be to place ads about how to enroll in a GED program, find work, seek childcare, locate low-income housing, seek child support, open low-cost bank accounts, afford transportation? How great would it be to run an expensive ad campaign that communicated how to find and do the things that support women as they raise their families?

And I'm not even getting into how racist these ads are!!

Don't forget the kids

Kids of teen moms are also affected by these ads, which portray them as mistakes and poor choices.

On another note, I wonder why anyone still thinks that publicly shaming people has any kind of positive results. It doesn't do anything but make people feel bad about themselves.

This is all sorts of

This is all sorts of nonsense. Let's not teach kids about birth control. All over the country (not nearly to the same extent in NY, but still) the government is making abortions and birth control increasing difficult to access, especially for teenagers. There is still quite a bit of public shaming over abortions, so you can't win. Teenagers are going to have sex. We know this. But rather than approaching it like rational adults, we refuse to talk about it, or only engage in shaming.

On the flip side, there have

On the flip side, there have also been a number of high profile articles that have been panicking about the drop in birthrate and talking about how more women need to be having babies. Of course, they don't say it, but the target audience are white, heterosexual, privileged women who are married and "old enough." But the trend continues, people talking about making decisions for women's bodies who are not the women themselves. It reduces to the fact that people are thinking about women in terms of whether or not they are deemed to be "acceptable breeding stock."

One thought occurred to me

One thought occurred to me regarding that "success sequence" study: It would be an interesting and fruitful public discussion to talk about WHY people tend to be more "successful" if their lives match that pattern. What might we do to increase the success of those whose lives don't follow that pattern? Because while it is an awful way to frame the situation, it is still true: Those who wait to have children tend to be more "successful" (higher income, greater educational achievement, less reliance on public benefits, longer lifespans, etc.).

Rather than argue about how that's framed or what success is (which are also important questions), I think it would be more useful to talk about how to support everyone to achieve that success (even if it is only success within a capitalist system).

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