Neoliberals are less sympathetic about unintended adolescent pregnancy

New research has found that people who endorse neoliberal ideals are more likely to blame an adolescent girl for unintentionally becoming pregnant — even in the case of rape. The findings were recently published in the scientific journal Sex Roles.

Neoliberalism refers to the movement to cut back regulations and social welfare, and to extend free market thinking to many domains of life.

“From a neoliberal perspective, people are free to behave however they like as long as they take personal responsibility for the outcomes of their choices. That is, those with strong neoliberal beliefs (i.e., neoliberals) think about freedom and morality in terms of individuals, not in terms of couples or circumstances,” explained study author Jennifer Katz of SUNY Geneseo.

“We wondered how neoliberals would respond to unintended reproductive outcomes such as adolescent pregnancy. Conception involves multiple potentially responsible individuals, not just the pregnant adolescent. We also wondered how neoliberals would respond to pregnancy after rape. Do neoliberals blame people for unintentional outcomes (e.g., pregnancy) even if people chose to avoid behaviors (e.g., refusing sex) leading to such outcomes?”

The study of 200 U.S. undergraduates found that students with stronger neoliberal beliefs tended to have more stigmatizing responses to adolescent pregnancy.

“We found that people with stronger neoliberal beliefs were more blaming and less sympathetic towards an adolescent who became unintentionally pregnant, regardless of whether the adolescent consented to sex or became pregnant after rape,” Katz told PsyPost. “These results suggest that neoliberal beliefs inhibit compassion for people who are vulnerable or mistreated by others.”

People who agreed with neoliberal statements like “A person’s success in life is determined more by his or her personal efforts than by society” and “A problem with government social programs is that they get in the way of personal freedom” were more likely to perceive an adolescent as being responsible for unintentionally becoming pregnant.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study examining the potential associations between neoliberal beliefs and responses to more or less controllable reproductive outcomes,” Katz said.

“Research is needed to examine links between neoliberal beliefs and other reproductive outcomes, including judgments about who is worthy of fertility treatments to conceive a wanted pregnancy or abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy. Many other types of vulnerable or mistreated populations also warrant study. Neoliberal beliefs seem to play a role in victim blaming, and more work could be done on how and why as well as whether there are exceptions.

“The neoliberal tendency to hold young women personally responsible for being pregnant or sexually violated denies a core reality: individuals are social beings who cannot fully exert control over either their reproductive systems or the actions of others,” Katz added. “In cases of unintentional pregnancy, neoliberal frameworks deflect attention away from partners. In cases of rape, neoliberal frameworks deflect attention away from perpetrators.”

The study, “Neoliberal Beliefs and Perceptions of Unintended Adolescent Pregnancy after Consensual or Forced Sex“, was authored by Jennifer Katz, Claire R. Gravelin, and Caroline O’Brien.