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Adolescent interaction with pregnancy risks has sparked significant study interest in several nations, both to understand its scope and to discuss it as an issue. Pogarsky, Thornberry, and Lizotte (2006), for example, identify certain characteristics related with adolescent pregnancy, such as school interruption, socioeconomic deprivation, bad obstetric outcomes, and insufficient mothering. Sex before marriage, on the other hand, is not a particularly new social trend. An examination of church archives from two New England communities from the 18th century reveals that nearly 40% of first births occurred within eight months of marriage, indicating that the babies were conceived prior to the marriage (Garcia & Wengarten, 1998). Childbirth outside of marriage is a fairly recent phenomenon. Given the social and cultural ramifications of teenage pregnancy, it is essential to comprehend the experiences of teen mothers in different contexts such as church, school, and family.
The Christian sexual ethic, in general, is based in no small extent on biblical texts. These texts seek to identify circumstances of sexual activity permissible to God. The Christian sexual ethic further specifies that a young woman who marries must do so as a virgin (Deuteronomy, 22: 13-21). From a Christian perspective, the sexual act was ordained by God with the aim of procreating children. Marriage is seen as the proper context for the expression of sexuality because it is considered to be an appropriate, safe and loving environment for bringing up children, by God’s will. From this, it appears that marriage is the only context in which sexual activity is permitted, to beget children. Most church organizations have a negative attitude towards premarital sex and pregnancy. Although there is a concern for teenagers and their sexuality, very little is provided by sexual theology for single persons. For example, when sexuality is addressed in Evangelical churches, it is often concerning simple advice, such as the reiteration of the orthodox view prohibiting sex before marriage. The emphasis on the prohibition of premarital sex is tantamount to defining the Christianity or faith of individuals concerning their sexual behavior, as some have argued (Rosenau, 2002), suggests that if an individual fails to abstain before marriage, her Christianity or faith is shaky.
Not all Christians succeed in adhering to the Christian sexual ethic as prescribed by the Church. These Christians, who are considered to have “fallen,” face substantial discrimination within the church community (Rosenau, 2002). Discrimination is effected through systems of exclusionary practices, including disciplinary action for transgression. For example, unmarried pregnant teenagers are temporarily excluded from participating in church activities as ordinary members of the congregation. They are only allowed “partial membership,” which may take the form of exclusion from partaking in some church activities (e.g., receiving Holy Communion). However, disciplinary actions in the church may depend on the church leaders and the church community as well as the geographical area. In the Moravian church, for example, young pregnant women have to sit separately from other members of the congregation (Bunting 2005). Unmarried mothers have to occupy a prominent place in the church known as “die sandbank” (pew of shame). These women are forbidden to wear white on their wedding day and are further deprived of the honor of walking on a red carpet. They can only get married in the conservatory and not in front of the altar. Also, the church bell, which in the Moravian community heralds important events such as deaths and marriages, is not rung.
The practices of exclusion are seen as a secondary intervention strategy to the problem of teenage pregnancy, where the only apparent primary intervention practice is emphasizing that premarital sexual practice is a sin. The motive behind these exclusionary exercises is to “assist” the transgressors and the congregation to reflect on the sin committed (Dallas, 2004). However, these practices are discriminatory, as they are directed exclusively at women. Specifically, this may suggest that the church is a patriarchal community as there are no precise disciplinary actions directed at unmarried teenage fathers. Further, these practices not only fail to take into account the developmental challenges of adolescence, but they also fall short of providing appropriate sex education to help young people to deal with the dominant messages concerning sexuality, arising from the media and other sources.
The Church’s exclusionary practices may result in unwed teenage mothers having intense negative feelings about themselves as well as their newborn babies. In fact, this condition can be exacerbated by rejection by family and peers. The child may also suffer the psychological consequences which may be related to the lack of a father figure as a role model, this being particularly the case for boys. They may develop a negative image of their mothers and females in general. In turn, this may result in violence against women and lack of respect for as well as insensitivity to females (Bunting 2005). In fact, this is likely to be associated with anger against their mothers who may be seen as a cause for not having a father. While most teenage mothers cooperate with the Church’s exclusionary practices, they remain emotionally unhealed. They might still be haunted by the experiences that led to the pregnancy, mainly if this was not their fault. For example, in the case of pregnancy resulting from incest or rape, a teenage girl goes through the trauma on her own as it might not be easy to disclose that it is her father or relative who is responsible for the pregnancy (Feldman, & Crandall, 2007). Explicitly, this leaves the offending party (i.e., rapist) untouched, while the woman, whose pregnancy is external evidence of her “sinful” transgression, bears the brunt of the Christian sexual ethic
It is my view, as a developmental scientist, that the exclusionary practices discussed above can lead to loneliness and isolation on the part of the affected adolescent or young woman. Loneliness and isolation could result from the fact that some young people in the church community do not want to associate with young pregnant girls, due to the stigma associated with pregnancy in this age group. It is conceivable that some young pregnant girls could end up leaving the Church as a result. Notably, this could lead to stress and despair, especially to those who do not have moral support from their families, and who had relied on the Church for moral support. Therefore, it essential to develop interventions that support effective sex education strategies in an attempt to deal with the problem of unwed teenage pregnancy. Adolescents need to be cultured about their bodies, and channels of communication between teenagers and their parents also need to be opened.
Bunting A. (2005). Stages of development: Marriage of girls and teens as an international human rights issue. Social & Legal Studies, 14(1), 17-38.
Dallas, C. (2004). Family matters: How mothers of adolescent parents experience adolescent pregnancy and parenting. Public Health Nursing, 21(4), 347-353.
Feldman, D. B., & Crandall, C. S. (2007). Dimensions of illness stigma: What about mental illness causes of social rejection. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26(2), 137-154.
Garcia, C. J., & Wengarten, S. K. (1998). Mothering against the odds: Diverse voices of contemporary mothers. New York: Guilford.
Gardner, T. A. (2002). Sacred sex: A spiritual celebration of oneness in marriage. Spring, CO: WaterBrook Press.
Pogarsky, G., Thornberry, T. P., & Lizotte, A. J. (2006). Developmental outcomes for children of young mothers. Journal of Marriage & Family, 68(2), 332-344.
Rosenau, D.E. (2002). Single and sexual: The church’s neglected dilemma. Journal ofPsychology and Theology, 30(3), 185-194.
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