Illustration by Narrative Initiative
Illustration by Narrative Initiative

What Does Birth Equity Look Like for Younger Parents?

Field Notes is where writers show us the creativity, perspectives, and strategies of everyday organizers who are pushing us toward a world where a truly just, multiracial democracy is possible. In this Field Note, Tonya Abari shows us how harmful narratives about "teen pregnancy" impact younger parents' access to care. Community-based care models, which broaden access to doulas, collective prenatal care, and midwives, affirm the needs and agency of younger parents.


Tonya Abari


21 May, 2024

When Georgie-Ann Sutton turned 16, she anticipated all the things that high school juniors look forward to — prom, college visits, extra curricular clubs, and hanging out with friends. What Sutton didn’t anticipate was finding out from an urgent care nurse that she was expecting.

“I had been studying for the SAT and ACT, and originally, I thought I was just extremely stressed because I had missed my period. At this point, I had already been sexually active for a year, but I didn’t think that I was pregnant.”

After weeks of feeling nauseous and showing symptoms of an aggressive virus that had been spreading, a school counselor encouraged Sutton to seek medical attention. However, bloodwork at the local urgent care revealed that Sutton was pregnant. “I did take a pregnancy test and I thought it was a negative reading. Years later, I discovered that it wasn’t negative, it was just that I was reading it incorrectly,” says Sutton. 

At the time, Sutton, who is now in her late twenties, was living with her father and had a rocky relationship with her own mother. “The way I was raised, like my family didn’t believe in abortion so they encouraged me to have the baby,” she says. Heavily influenced by family, she and her partner decided that the pregnancy “was a gift from God” and keeping the baby would be in their best interest. 

However, Sutton’s decision came with many unanswered questions: Where could she find support? Would she still be able to complete her studies after the birth of her first child? How would she, as a young parent, ensure ideal care before, during, and after childbirth? 

Navigating pregnancy, childbirth, and optimal care first begins with challenging the stereotypes of what it means to be a younger parent."

Challenging stereotypical narratives of teen pregnancy and childbirth

In 1992, rapper Tupac Shakur released the single “Brenda’s Got a Baby” from the 2Pacalypse Now album inspired by the true story of a 12-year-old mother who gave birth to a baby boy and placed the newborn into a dumpster. Between 1990-1992, there were more than a dozen nationally-recognized cases of newborns being thrown into trash bins or similar. 

The story made national headlines and upon the release of Shakur's video, more conversations began to highlight the significance of addressing the growing number of pregnancies and childbirths amongst younger birthing people. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services, the percentage of teens giving birth has steadily declined (nearly 75 percent)  since its peak in the early 1990s. However, the United States is still higher than many other developed countries around the world such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

Like Sutton, many young expecting parents are immediately met with stereotypes or assumptions before being given any kind of care. That’s why younger parents often stay silent about pregnancy and childbirth.

“We think that we weren't supposed to be in this predicament in the first place. I didn’t know how to advocate for care because I felt like I had done something wrong,” says Sutton.”

“Navigating pregnancy, childbirth, and optimal care first begins with challenging the stereotypes of what it means to be a younger parent,” emphasizes Dr. Mercedes Samudio, LCSW, Founder of Shame-Proof Parenting.

“Teen pregnancies are often unexpected. Nonetheless, teen pregnancy and childbirth is a reality, just like at  any other age. When a person has decided that they are bringing a child into the world, we need to accept them. Affirming the experience and acknowledging that there is a new human and parent that is also developing is key.”

Author of 16 and Pregnant: A Novel and mother, Lala Thomas agrees. 

“When I agreed to write the book..I wanted to highlight that pregnant young people are just everyday kids that are faced with making life changing decisions like everybody else,” says Thomas. “The characters in my book experience this. After acknowledging and accepting the reality of young parenthood, families can then properly seek optimal care,” she continues. 

What birth equity looks like for younger parents

The National Birth Advocacy Collective operates under the mission that every birthing person, no matter the age, is entitled to an optimal birth. An “optimal” birth might include factors like creating a birth plan, breastfeeding and postpartum support, necessary interventions, and healthcare free from microaggressions and internal bias.

However, birth equity looks different for younger parents because their unique needs require different levels of nuanced care. 

For instance, Georgie-Ann Sutton’s support team rallied around providing community postpartum care so that she could have a seamless transition back into the classroom. 

“One of the teachers had recently had a baby boy and she gave me four boxes of clothes and other baby necessities…it offset a bunch of costs.” She continues, “My grandmother was also my saving grace. When I was in school, she kept the baby so that I could complete my education. My grandmother also made all my meals postpartum.”

Dr. Samudio’s career as an educator and social worker  includes over a decade of experience working with pregnant teens, specifically providing teens and their families with temporary assistance while maintaining a school presence. 

Sutton was able to return to school, participate in extracurricular activities, and breastfeed her son with the support of her family and community. 

“I encourage family members and the community to show up for young birthing people. Instead of turning them away or focusing on teen pregnancy as a negative experience, shower them with as much financial (if possible) and emotional help as possible. It doesn’t have to be linked to money or material items, either. Creating a safe and empathic space of love and understanding is free,” says Samudio. 

Everyone deserves equal access to care

Access to quality healthcare and reproductive services is important before, during, and after childbirth. Organizations like Teen Parent Connection provide teen parents with a safe space to grow, childbirth and parenting classes, meetups, and even financial assistance. 

Tanzye Hill, Doula, Student Midwife, and Founder of Nashville-based Birth Manifesta, has provided free doula services for over 15 of her former students. 

“One of my former students, 18, wanted to make it across the stage for graduation and found out she was pregnant right before entering her senior year. She graduated and then went into labor just two days later. I was her primary support person,” explains Hill.

When she became a doula, Hill knew that she wanted to ensure that young pregnant and birthing people in underserved communities had strong advocates and that money would never be a barrier to obtaining quality care. 

“Birth Manifesta is a social enterprise business. And so from the beginning, I’ve always believed that pregnancy and birth support should be accessible to everyone,” says Hill. 

But what about young parents who don’t feel like they have adequate access to care?

Dr. Samudio suggests seeking help from family. If that is not an option, Samudio encourages young parents to seek assistance from their local communities. 

“Spiritual or religious groups, YMCA, online support forums, shelters, and for Black mothers especially, groups like Black Mamas Matter Alliance are there to help you find support and connect with other young parents online,” adds Samudio.

Shifting maternal and infant health outcomes with increased community care 

Increased community care can greatly affect maternal and infant health outcomes. Research shows community-based approaches such as increasing access to midwifery, doula practices, group prenatal care, and unbiased birthing centers, greatly impacts maternal and infant health outcomes. 

“Awareness and sustainable access for mental health also determines whether younger parents are properly cared for during all phases of the birthing process,” adds Dr. Samudio.

Hill believes that her work as a doula has saved many former students from unfavorable situations. “I am constantly advocating for birthing people to have autonomy over their own bodies and for healthcare workers to not discriminate against them because of their financial situations or their age. If my client says she doesn’t want a catheter, and there’s no medical reason as to why she needs one, we need to listen to her.”

Proper care is also a vehicle to get birthing people properly diagnosed. “I advise teen moms to seek out high risk pregnancy experts because a lot of young people that get pregnant don't realize that they too, can be high risk,” advises Thomas, who also works as a California-based educator.

In addition to increased community care and healthcare support, young parents have a critical role in shifting health outcomes just by having more of a platform for their voices to be heard in conversations of birth equity and parenting.

“We need more people who want to see young parents win. They are not there to judge, but there to offer safe spaces to feel supported and to feel seen. More platforms for younger parents to express themselves and share their stories. I’m not necessarily promoting teen pregnancy, but not acknowledging that it exists as you know, creates a bigger problem.”

Tonya Abari is a multigenre storyteller: freelance journalist, author, editor, and book reviewer. Her words have been published in Publishers Weekly, USA Today, Good Housekeeping, ZORA, among other places. When she's not writing, she enjoys spending time with her family, discovering new places, collecting healing crystals, and homeschooling her inquisitive and free-spirited daughters. You can find her on instagram as @iamtabari.