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How Do Pregnant Teenagers Make the Decision to Terminate or Continue? A Study of the Pregnancy Resolution Process Among African-American and White Women Aged 14-20


This dissertation addresses the following questions: 1) How do teenagers decide whether to terminate or continue a pregnancy?, and 2) Why do some pregnant teenagers choose to continue their pregnancies while others do not? I answer these questions using data from 19 months of participant-observation at reproductive health clinics and transcripts from in-depth interviews with 45 pregnant young women made across time as they decided whether to terminate or continue. While some sociologists argue that moral decisions are determined by non-conscious thought, I found that participants used a combination of reason, intuition, imagination, and cultural knowledge to decide which route to take. In addition, cultural meanings of pregnancy and coercive actions of parents and partners constrained individual decision making. Teens made pregnancy resolution decisions through a process of imaginative assessment in which they projected themselves forward into the future. Imaginative assessment involved mentally rehearsing potential scenarios trying to gauge how different futures might look or feel. Thus, participants used cultural knowledge to explore various hypothetical scenarios and to determine, in negotiation with other actors in their environment, which imagined future was most appealing and most likely. Comparing those who continued with those who did not, I argue that two key mechanisms--daily activity level and formulations of the future--explained how it came to be that structural factors influenced decision outcomes. That is, access to educational and employment opportunities, which were evident in teens' daily activities, shaped the futures they imagined inhabiting. Teens with opportunities, who were typically engaged in goal oriented activities, usually felt they were too busy to have a baby and imagined motherhood in negative terms as disruptive of their plans for the upcoming year. In comparison, teens with fewer opportunities who were less engaged in their daily activities, and perhaps unoccupied or bored, imagined the baby as a positive addition to their lives. Teens with fewer opportunities were also more likely to focus on their romantic relationships and hope that the baby would provide the beginnings of an emotionally fulfilling family life--either with or without their boyfriend. Thus, a teen’s daily level of engagement in goal oriented activities directly shaped their ideas about the short term future which, in turn, informed their decision making. My findings contribute to the sociology of morality, theories of reproductive decision making, and recent work on future projections.

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