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Should Pregnant High School Students Receive Maternity Leave? The Complexity of Accommodating a Less-than-Ideal Status


Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Recently, a group of pregnant girls at a public school in Denver made an unusual request of the school board: They asked for maternity leave of four weeks before having to return to school. In the absence of a leave, a teenager who gives birth and takes time (post-discharge from the hospital) to heal and bond with her new baby will receive unexcused absences from school. Such absences, in turn, make graduation less likely, which can create significant barriers to the girls' ability to thrive as adults. Nonetheless, a maternity leave policy for high-school students might appear to condone reproduction among teenagers, a disturbing prospect. This column examines the complexity of the question how to accommodate the interests of teenage girls in this context.

The Problem: Pregnancy and Dropping Out

In Denver, the rate of teen pregnancy is relatively high. When girls have babies while still in school, moreover, their odds of completing their education diminish. Given their new responsibilities and financial obligations, attending school might seem to them increasingly irrelevant. Unfortunately, though, a decision to drop out will likely have harmful consequences for the girls' futures, not to mention those of the babies to whom they have given birth.

Giving girls four weeks to recuperate from labor and to bond with their infants is hardly a cure-all for their problems, of course. The girls must continue to complete their schoolwork and return after their "leaves" are over. This requires that there be responsible adults in a girl's life who can help with the new baby and ease the transition back into school by picking up classmates' notes and staying in touch with the girls' teachers. If any of the above is absent, the leave is likely to become permanent and end in the creation of yet another drop-out.

Thus, it is the girl who has the support of her family (or of other helpful adults) who will benefit the most from a maternity leave. She will use the time in question to balance the challenges of caring for a newborn with staying abreast of material covered in her classes. As a professor, I have had law students facing this situation, and I have greatly admired their resourcefulness and ability to return to school and complete their work after a few weeks away. If a teenager can manage to accomplish the same, I am inclined to believe that we should provide her with both support and encouragement. That she wishes to go back to school is a very positive sign and reflects a desire that should be nurtured rather than frustrated.

An Opposing View

One response to this argument is that the pregnant teenager and her baby are not the only people whose futures are at stake. Like most conduct among teenagers, pregnancy can represent a kind of social contagion (by which I do not mean a disease, but simply a behavior that peers are likely to emulate). This is one of the reasons that parents of pregnant teens were, in the past, expected to enroll their daughters in special schools specifically designated for them. In such schools, they would not be in a position to influence other (non-pregnant) girls to view teen pregnancy (or even teen sexuality) as acceptable or desirable alternatives.

We now have a somewhat more enlightened approach to teen pregnancy, and we permit girls to remain with other students even as they begin "showing," rather than segregate them or otherwise effectively shame them. There are still schools to which pregnant girls may go (though the Denver version is apparently too full to accommodate additional students), but the switch is optional rather than mandatory. And the designated schools do not - as they used to - provide an inherently limited education that assumes the girls need simply to learn to be homemakers. Permitting pregnant teens to remain in regular schools is humane and offers the possibility that the girls will reach adulthood with more promising prospects.

There may, however, be a downside to such accommodation. If you are sixteen years old and one (or more) of your friends is pregnant, she is probably getting a lot of attention from you and others (and perhaps not all of the attention is negative). You thus might come to see pregnancy as a way to be an adult without having to do the more mundane things associated with maturity. And if your friend is able to take a maternity leave and then return to school, the prospect of pregnancy may become even more appealing. Rather than use contraception or delay sexual activity, you might affirmatively seek such a visible and apparently socially-rewarded initiation into adulthood.

Furthermore, the fathers of pregnancies might begin to seek paternity leaves, too. Perhaps not truly interested in bonding with their babies, some boys could view a leave as an opportunity to skip classes without a penalty. It is sexist, they might argue, to permit the girls but not the boys to stay home from school (at least to the extent that physical recovery is not the entire reason for the leave). If they succeeded in their arguments, there could be a danger of glamorizing (or maybe further glamorizing) teenage paternity and thereby discouraging the use of condoms by boys (who are already inclined against their use). Such behavior, in turn, represents a risk factor not only for increasing pregnancy rates but for spreading sexually transmitted infections as well.


Such arguments - against the accommodation of what one might term "deviant conduct" - are not without precedent. Religious groups, for example, have opposed the distribution of condoms in school on the grounds that the availability of contraception encourages or condones teen sexuality. If an adult tells you, "Do not have sex, but if you do, here's a condom," the first part of the message could be muted by the second. For similar reasons, some have opposed the distribution of clean needles to heroin users (intended to counter the spread of HIV and other infections). As with condoms, people worry about the mixed message conveyed by the official distribution of paraphernalia for carrying out prohibited conduct.

Such arguments have some weight, at least in theory. Taking a less ambiguous example, it would seem inappropriate for the government to offer vasectomies to those men intending to become rapists. To acknowledge and accommodate rape is to take away some of its stigma, and that is likely to be true for conduct that is less stigmatized as well - including teen sexuality and the use of illicit drugs.

The evidence, however, suggests that sex and drug use do not increase when authorities distribute condoms and clean needles. Thus, the failure to distribute condoms and clean needles has the effect of risking a high rate of pregnancy as well as the spread of deadly diseases, without any corresponding benefit (beyond the purity of one's position). This is quite possibly because teenagers (and perhaps heroin addicts as well) do not truly care whether adults or other authority figures are ambivalent about what they are doing. For teens in particular, what matters is peer behavior, regardless of how definitively or ambivalently the adults in their lives make known their categorical opposition.

But are these analogies to high-school maternity leave compelling? After all, providing maternity leave is not just something that adults do - like distributing condoms or clean needles. It is something that some teenage girls - those who become pregnant, decide to remain pregnant, and then give birth to and keep their babies - get to do. In other words, it is not so much the adult message conveyed by the provision of maternity leave, as the role-modeling of the girls who take such a leave, that risks a copycat effect. Watching a friend's pregnancy followed by a special period of bonding and then a return to school could inspire feelings of envy followed by emulation in non-pregnant friends. With tongue in cheek, I notice a similar phenomenon in upper-middle-class neighborhoods in which some women - and then many more women - decide that a third and a fourth pregnancy seem like a good idea. As one commentator described it a few years ago, "Three is the new two."

Balancing the Interests of Pregnant and Non-pregnant Teens

In the end, as with most things, we must balance pros and cons. If it turns out that maternity leave substantially increases the rate of teen pregnancy, it will be necessary to revisit any leave policy adopted. In the interim, however, the pregnant teen has so many obstacles in her path already, that it seems cruel to deny her relief and accommodation in the hopes of deterring others from making her mistakes. And indeed, if other students glamorize her pregnancy, they are as likely to view her ultimately dropping out as attractive as they are to view it as a cautionary tale. Helping her return to her studies, in other words, might send the crucial message that remaining in school is the right thing to do, regardless of what your circumstances are. It is a sad reality that so many teenagers are pregnant. Denying that reality is unlikely to prove the most promising approach to changing it.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Visiting Professor at Columbia Law School. Her book, When Sex Counts: Making Babies and Making Law, is currently available on Amazon.

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