Babies having babies: an explosion of infants born to teenage mothers
Exploding numbers of new, immature teenage mothers are putting a huge strain on Nunavut’s health and social service system.
IQALUIT — A rumour is floating around Nunavut that there are as many as five 25-year old grandmothers in Arviat.
Although nurses at Arviat’s health centre say with confidence that this isn’t true, it is true that there are a handful of 30-year old grandmothers in Arviat, as well as an astonishing number of new teen pregnancies this year.
In fact, 15 teenagers in Arviat have already given birth since January or will deliver babies before the end of the year, contributing to an estimated total of 80 babies expected to be born during 2000 in this fast-growing Nunavut community.
The numbers of pregnant teens in Arviat likely puts the community on top of all Nunavut communities in teen pregnancy rates.
Statistics determining these rankings are usually based on the number of teenaged girls out of every 1,000 who become pregnant in a year.
Tops in North America
In Arviat, there are about 65 girls aged 15 -19. About 23 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 get pregnant. If this ratio were to be applied to a population of 1,000 girls, 230 of them would be pregnant.
This means Arviat’s teen pregnancy rate for girls 15-19 is around 230 per 1,000.
That’s way above the over-all US rate of 51 per 1,000 for girls 15-19, or the 87 per 1000 rate in Washington, D.C.’s inner-city slums.
Statistics Canada numbers show that in 1994, the rate for pregnancies among girls aged 15-19 in the Northwest Territories was 67 per 1,000, and for girls younger than 15, 12.6 per 1000.
These rates are many, many times higher than the national Canadian rates for teen pregnancy: 27 per 1,000 for girls 15-19, and only 1.3 per 1,000 for those under 15.
In Nunavut, the sketchy numbers – and non-existent official statistics – don’t yet reveal the full extent of Nunavut’s teen pregnancy phenomenon.
But health officials know they have a massive problem on their hands.
According to the former CEO of the Baffin Health Board, the average age at which women in the Baffin region give birth to their first child has tumbled over the years from 16 -18 years of age to 14-16 years.
Not surprisingly, Nunavut’s health and social services minister, Ed Picco, considers the growing numbers of teen pregnancies, and the related issues of family planning and birth control, to be a priority.
“Working with the CHRs [community health representatives], working with the people, we have to deal with family planning issues,” Picco said during the last sitting of the assembly in Iqaluit.
“The majority of CHRs and our field base staff are Inuit and… thus we are incorporating Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit into the Department of Health and Social Services, and specifically into dealing with some of these issues.”
Picco acknowledged the stresses that these numbers of young teenage mothers put on the health and social service system.
“We know that in some communities we have a birth-rate of 40-50-60 babies being born in the communities of 1,400 or 1,500 people,” Picco said.
“And that is not sustainable over the long term.”
Young mothers – unhealthy mothers
The increasingly younger ages of first-time mothers also presents a public health challenge for Nunavut’s cash-strapped health services. The rule of thumb says that the younger the mother, the greater the risk of complications for both mother and child during childbirth.
Young pregnant women are less likely to eat well, get prenatal check-ups and to stop smoking. Pregnant teens run a risk of anemia, high blood pressure, and premature labour. Their children have a higher risk of problems related to prematurity and low birth weight.
This also means additional health expenses, because these young mothers at risk are generally sent South to deliver.
There’s also a long-term social cost, say studies on teen pregnancy. The lower the age of the pregnant teen, the less voluntary the sex was likely to be.
A teen mother will also be less likely to complete high school, and more likely to receive social assistance.
The children of teen mothers are also more at risk of becoming young parents themselves, giving some support to the vision of 25-year old grandmothers if current trends continue.
But getting to the cause of teen pregnancy isn’t easy.
Birth control no solution
Birth control, for example, is readily available in health clinics. An injection of Depo Provera can provide protection from pregnancy for four months, and, of course, condoms are always given away free-of-charge.
But birth control is just part of the elusive solution to teen pregnancy.
A Laval University sociologist, Jean-Jacques Simard, looked at teen parenthood in Nunavik – where rates of teen pregnancies have also risen dramatically – in his study of social trends in northern Quebec from 1970 to 1990.
“There’s nothing to encourage boys to assume their parental responsibilities and nothing to discourage the romantic illusions girl have about an early… and solitary, motherhood,” Simard said.
Simard concluded that the increase of health delivery and social services were also among the complex and numerous factors linked to the higher teen pregancy rates.
“The support of extended families, increased social assistance, and perhaps the bias of employers towards women who are heads of households (because they’ve already shown they can live up to responsibilities), combine to lower the barriers against childbirth at a low age, with or without marriage,” Simard said.
“Add to this lower educational levels, a tendency to live in the present without considering the future, an environment poor in socio-cultural stimulation, and you would have the conditions favourable to early childbearing.”
In Simard’s opinion, the change in traditional Inuit lifestyles has also contributed to teenagers becoming young parents, but for very different reasons.
“Young women feel that they are “traditionally” linking themselves to their future mates and elevating their social status by becoming mothers, while men, deprived of ways to realize themselves normally, turn towards immediate satisfactions and reject paternal responsibilities,” Simard reflected.