Teen pregnancy has been in the news a lot lately, it seems. First there was Juno, the oscar-winning movie about a pregnant teenage girl. Then 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears—younger sister of pop star/basketcase Brittany Spears—made waves when news broke of her out-of-wedlock bun in the oven. And on Friday, just one day after Jamie Lynn Spears had her baby, news came out that 17 pregnant teenagers in Gloucester, Massachusetts—all students at the same high school—had made a pact to get pregnant and have their children together. The pact was discovered after staff at the school clinic noticed an increase in the number of girls coming in for pregnancy tests and reported that some girls seemed disappointed when their tests came up negative.
So what is one to make of this case? Naturally, there’s the obligatory gaggle of Hollywood blamers, who say movies like Juno and Knocked Up trivialize pregnancy and make it seem like a frivolous, fun matter. These same people also blame the gossip mags for inappropriately and disproportionately glamorizing celebrity pregnacies, adoptions, and childbirths. This is to be expected since America has a tendency to seek easy scapegoats, with Hollywood and mass media being convenient and longstanding bêtes-noires. Let’s not forget that Marilyn Manson was blamed for the Columbine shootings and hip-hop has been blamed for everything from carjacking to drug use?
But I think there’s more at play here than the pop culture–haters are willing to delve into. No doubt, the decision to get pregnant shows these girls to be immature and emotionally underdeveloped, precisely the point made by Amanda Ireland, herself a teen mom and graduate of Gloucester High School: “They’re so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally. I try to explain it’s hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3 a.m.” So it’s telling, and sad, that amidst the uproar of righteous indignation over this case, a teenage mom’s analysis is the most insightful and comes closest to addressing the deeper issues—low self-worth and a desire for affirmation—that may be at work here.
So, rather than blame the media, let’s look elsewhere; specifically, where these girls are from. Now, I’ve never been to Gloucester, Massachusetts, but from what I’ve read, it’s an economically depressed community with a majority Catholic population. I can’t speculate on these girls’ domestic situations but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that girls from stable, nurturing, and affirming environments do not choose to get pregnant before they are 16. I would be interested in hearing about how these girls felt about their lives, their futures, and their odds of getting out of their economically depressed communities, going to college, and getting a real shot at personal and professional success. In other words, I wish the conversation were focused more on the choices open to teenage girls in economically depressed communities with few avenues for escape.
Having never been to Gloucester, I can only speculate, which I’m fully prepared to do since I’m also a gambling man. I wager that these girls were not raised in homes or communities in which they were taught to value themselves or to make decisions that would benefit them in the future. I wager that these girls never saw themselves as college graduates or professionals. And I would wager that these girls considered pregnancy and motherhood to be worthy accomplishments that would win them attention and admiration. After all, these girls are, like all people, rational beings and—despite showing terrible judgement—we can only assume that some thinking must have taken place. Moreover, these girls were definitely not the first teenagers in their school or community to get pregnant. What is unusual is that they got together, talked about why they wanted to all be pregnant at the same time, and then went out and did it. And did it they did—one of the 17 was supposedly impregnated by a 24-year-old homeless guy! That shows determination and planning, and those are rational thought processes.
So, almost half a century after the social revolutions of the 1960s, it seems many American girls are still living beyond the reach of women’s liberation, the movement that declared that women were more than mere vessels for children and could, in fact, become anything they wanted to be. Somewhere along the way, American society failed to teach these 17 girls from Gloucester, Massachusetts that teen pregnancy and motherhood are not the only options open to them, just as it fails to deliver that message to thousands of girls all around the country. It is clear, though, that another message reached these girls. They saw teen pregnancy and motherhood as worthy and worthwhile goals, and they set out in pursuit of them. With limited educational and economic opportunities and an increasingly “pro-family” state, is it any surprise then that the US has the highest teen pregnancy rates of any industrialized country? Should anyone really be surprised to learn that teen pregnancy is once again rising after a 14-year decline?
It really is too bad that nobody is telling American girls that a college education, a profession, and financial independence are also worthy goals—goals that they deserve and are fully capable of achieving. And it’s even worse that nobody is doing anything to make college a more affordable and thus attainable goal for all American teenagers.
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UPDATE — To all the family-values people who blame sex education and contraception for teen pregnancy:
Pathways for Children CEO Sue Todd, whose organization runs the school’s on-site daycare center, told TIME on June 13 that its social worker had heard of the girls’ plan to get pregnant as early as last fall. She noted that some of the girls involved had been identified as being at risk of becoming a teen mother as early as sixth grade, when they began to request pregnancy tests in middle school. “What we’ve seen is the girls fit a certain profile,” Todd said. “They’re socially isolated, and they don’t have the support of their families.”
I seriously doubt these girls were getting sex education in sixth grade yet some of them were already exhibiting high-risk sexual behavior. Where’s the traditional family in this scenario?