Some people might say that I am successful. After graduating from Notre Dame last May, I am now living on my own in Chicago, working for a top consulting firm. I have a solid group of friends from school, and continue to make more as I have become involved in various groups here in the city. Also, I have never been pregnant.
What does pregnancy have to do with success? I found the answer to this question—believe it or not—on one of my recent consulting projects at work. Background research for the project led me to read some civic reports on student success in school. Among the data analyzed in the reports were teen pregnancy rates and their affect on “student success,” which mainly referred to decreased high school and college graduation rates.
In an effort to curb the drop-out rate and further “student success,” numerous pregnancy prevention programs have been created. Most of these programs cite reliance on education and the promotion of contraceptives to reduce not just student pregnancies, but also births. According to its website, the number one goal of the Center for Disease Control’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program is to “reduce the rates of pregnancies and births to youth in the target areas” (emphasis added). Such language indicates efforts not only to prevent pregnancy from occurring, but also to terminate pregnancies before they result in birth.
While the obvious reliance on abortion as a “fix” for teen pregnancy is concerning for numerous reasons, an even more disturbing—though more subtle—suggestion is being made in these reports. This disquieting suggestion remains simple, yet incredibly powerful, and pervasive throughout the world today: Pregnancy opposes women’s success.
Success, as defined by most educational initiatives, is boiled down to high school and college graduation rates. Because the birth of a child has been shown to decrease the likelihood of graduation, simple logic concludes that childbirth then inhibits such “success.” Yet the tragedy occurs when, amidst the noble effort to aid women in their education, we turn on pregnancy and childbirth as the disasters. This attitude has permeated not only the years of high school and college, but the years following as well. For when has a woman reached sufficient “success” to deem it acceptable to be a mother? Once a mother, is additional success rendered impossible?
Certainly, having a child poses significant challenges for students completing their education. But these messages of success are demeaning, if not downright discriminatory, to women. Having a child, like when we allow anyone into our lives, requires many challenges and sacrifices, whenever it occurs—whether we are age 15 or 40. What must be reiterated is the truth that none of these obstacles are insurmountable, especially with the increasing number of resources available to pregnant and parenting students.
Embracing these children, however, also requires something of the community; mothers require financial assistance, parental support and creative, compassionate hearts. Around the country, these resources can be found, but they must continue to be requested and promoted. Notre Dame is already pioneering this model, offering everything from housing to financial support for pregnant and parenting students to complete their education. This year the student Right to Life club won the national “pregnant on campus” group of the year award from Students for Life of America for the efforts taken to support the choice for life on campus.
Addressing challenges in our lives builds strength, courage and character. There are many stories of students who became even more hard-working and focused on their education after having a child, in an effort to care for the child. Adoption remains another avenue all-too-frequently ignored. Therefore, casting pregnancy as a kind of certain death for one’s education is both false and reductive of the situation at hand.
In many of the educational reports I read, options for prevention of pregnancy were listed, but no mention was made of resources for helping students through pregnancy and childbirth. Again the subtle message is sent that to succeed one must eliminate pregnancy. Correspondingly, a recognition of childbirth as a kind of failure continues to permeate our culture, creating an environment ripe with women at war with their own bodies.
While at Notre Dame, and since graduating, I too have encountered the tremendous pressure to “succeed.” For each of us, success unfolds in many incredible and unexpected ways. But as long as childbirth is understood as contrary to women’s success, abortion and birth control do remain the sole foundation for women’s equal opportunity to thrive. Only when we create options for the true recognition of success for mothers will this injustice be corrected, and the gift of life and a woman’s body, rather than evidence of some kind of “failure,” will be once again recognized for what it is—a miracle.
Samantha Stempky is a member of the class of 2013 and a former president of Notre Dame Right to Life.