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Volume 48, Issue 2
Pages 73 - 81

Social Norms and Stigma Regarding Unintended Pregnancy and Pregnancy Decisions: A Qualitative Study of Young Women in Alabama


Social norms and stigma may play important roles in reproductive health behavior and decision making among young women in the U.S. South, who disproportionately experience unintended pregnancies. No research has described the presence and manifestations of social norms and stigmas associated with unintended pregnancy and related decision making from the perspective of this population.


Six focus groups and 12 cognitive interviews were conducted between December 2013 and July 2014 with 46 low-income women aged 19–24 living in Birmingham, Alabama; respondents were recruited from two public health department centers and a community college. Semistructured interview guides were used to facilitate discussion about social perceptions of unintended pregnancy and related pregnancy decisions. Sessions were audio-recorded, and transcripts were analyzed using a theme-based approach.


Participants described community expectations that pregnancy occur in the context of monogamous relationships, in which both partners are mature, educated and financially stable. However, respondents reported that unintended pregnancy outside of these circumstances was common, and that the community expected young women faced with unintended pregnancies to bear and raise their children. Women who chose to do so were viewed more positively than were women who chose abortion or adoption. The community generally considered these alternatives to parenting unacceptable, and participants discussed them in terms of negative labels, social judgment and nondisclosure.


Findings suggest a need to reduce stigma and create a social environment in which young women are empowered to make the best reproductive decisions for themselves.

Authors' Affiliations

Whitney Smith and Anna Helova are doctoral candidates, Janet M. Turan is professor and Kari White is assistant professor, Department of Health Care Organization and Policy, School of Public Health; Kristi L. Stringer is a doctoral candidate, Department of Medical Sociology, College of Arts and Sciences/Center for Outcomes and Effectiveness Research and Education; and Tina Simpson is associate professor, Department of Pediatrics, School of Medicine—all at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Kate Cockrill is executive director, Sea Change Program, Tides Foundation, Oakland, CA.

The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Guttmacher Institute.

Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health