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A Teachable Moment for Teen Pregnancy

Posted on Jun 25, 2008

By Ellen Goodman

Well now, isn’t that a relief. The infamous “pregnancy pact” at Gloucester High School turns out to be an urban legend. The media mobs that descended on the fishing town may now pack up their cameras and their moral outrage.

    It’s all over, folks. Except for the 17 Gloucester girls in the late stages of pregnancy or early stages of motherhood. And except, of course, for the 140,000 other American girls between 15 and 17 who’ll be having their own babies this year.

    Let us review the feeding frenzy that seemed to please so many palates. The natives of the Massachusetts town already knew there had been a bump in the number of baby bumps. High school pregnancies had quadrupled in one year. But this didn’t get much outside notice until the high school principal told a Time magazine reporter that nearly half the girls “made a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.”

    Pregnancy Pact! “Sisterhood of the Maternity Pants!” “Jailbait Girls in Tot Pact!” Quick, ride your favorite hobbyhorse over to the nearest cable station, network or blog.

    The tale of the pregnancy pact led all the usual suspects to cast all the usual blame. It was because the state rejected abstinence-only funds. No, it was because the school couldn’t dispense condoms. It was because the celebrity culture bred Jamie Lynn Spears wannabes. No, it was because the town was in the economic dumps. It was because the school had day care. No, it was because of an “absolute moral collapse.”


Square, Site wide

    Just when the dudgeon rose high over the outrage levee, along came the beleaguered mayor of her struggling city to tell a packed news conference that there was no evidence of a “blood oath” and that the high school principal had gotten a bit “foggy in his memory.” Next, some of the pregnant girls spoke up and the pact fell apart at the seams. Maybe some got pregnant intentionally, maybe some bonded before or after the pregnancy test, but there was no mass plunge into motherhood. Phew.

    Uh, phew? Before we comfortably return to ignoring reality, may I remind you that the “Girls Gone Wild in Gloucester” merely raised this school’s pregnancy rate up to 3 percent, or just under the national average for teens from 15 to 17. Are there no cameras on, say, Holyoke, Mass., where the pregnancy rate is 9 percent?

    The Gloucester 17 have real troubles, but some 4,000 teens gave birth in Massachusetts (in 2006), and we’re near the bottom of the chart, with a 2 percent teen birthrate. If you want real numbers, go west young media, to Texas, top of the teen birth heap at 6 percent. And if the gee-whiz factor was that some girls got pregnant intentionally, guess what? About 15 percent of all teen pregnancies are intentional—not counting those in that gray zone between intention and accident.

    So why does it take the myth of the mommy pact to get attention? Patricia Quinn, head of the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, figures that the story touched some deep fear. “We are terrified that we don’t actually decide for our kids when they have sex. We don’t decide when they become parents,” she says. The notion that a group of girls made that decision together and without us caused a freak-out.

    Indeed, the pregnant girls of Gloucester were described by one social worker as “socially isolated.” How many teens are in fact isolated, particularly from the adult world?

    “In our fear, we fail to do what we can do. Parents need to aggressively articulate their values,” says Quinn. They need to say, she adds, “I know this is in your own hands, but here are my values, here are my expectations, here’s what I hope.” About two-thirds of our children have had sex before they graduate from high school. Have they heard what we believe about sexuality, about relationships, about pleasure and responsibility?

    If this is still a “teachable moment”—a phrase used to make us feel better when we’ve been gobsmacked by reality—what’s the lesson from this media frenzy? That we’re spending way too much time arguing with each other in public about sex education, abstinence, condoms and shame. We’re spending way too little time talking to kids over the kitchen table about sexuality and sexual values.

    Anyone ready to make a new pact?
    Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)
    © 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Partizannka, May 25, 2010 at 5:39 am Link to this comment

You know, this is very right to speak more with our kids about sexuality and family values!! we are always shy to do so, and then when they grow up, we are shocked as we see that they have no idea what to do with their sexuality and how to build healthy relationship!! Sure they dont!! As you never passed your life experience about it to them!! They had to learn from TV and their friends, who knew not more…
kitchen appliances

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By Jenn, July 8, 2008 at 9:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a second generation teen mother, I have taken the responsibility upon myself of breaking the cycle with my daughter.  I’ve always been very open and honest with her when it comes to her body, in an age-appropriate manner.  It is my belief that it is my job to give her the tools and values she needs to make the best decision when she is by herself or with friends.  I received the sex/health education the school system gives, and while I understood what they taught and believed that I knew what to do, when the test came my boyfriend and I fell short.  I did not have the guidance from my mother, aside from “don’t do it”.  She did not help me understand the emotions that go along with the decision.  My mother was not forthright with me, even after I told her I was having sex.  She did not take me to the doctor, or make sure I had access to birth control.  She really didn’t recognize what I told her at all, until it was too late and I was taking the pregnancy test.
My boyfriend became my husband, and we are a couple of the lucky ones.  We are still together almost 16 years later.  It was not easy to be a spouse, and a mother and a student and a full time worker all at the same time at the tender age of 17.  We were lucky that we had family that stepped up to help us succeed.  Not everyone is so lucky.  I believe that the schools do a decent job of teaching the mechanics, and they should DEFINETELY teach prevention to the teens, as this IS all a health issue (aside from a moral issue, a HEALTH issue).  With that in mind, there is no replacement for the influence a parent has with their teen and the ability of that teen to succeed.

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By Jen, July 2, 2008 at 12:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Teenagers are having sex like crazy from the time they are 13 nowadays!  It’s a little too late to expect them to stop doing it now just by having a fireside chat with their parents.

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By Washington Bubble, June 27, 2008 at 7:46 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Rage wrote:
“This isn’t the 50s! Let’s start being honest and real with our kids. “

True, but if you want to be honest than you’d have to realize parents have been “honest and real” with their kids.  On top of that with all that is out there now on the topic of teen pregancy that it would take alot of effort to_avoid all that information.  That being said what_really is the missing piece here that would help solve the issue?  Society not being so accepting of the problem in the first place would be a start.  Personal responsibility, add that to the list as well, teach that lesson and we might see a bit of change.  Why has teen pregnancy gone_up over the years along with the increase in teen pregnancy prograns, school day cares and so forth?  The reason is not as simple as “They’re going to have sex nightly if they can”..that has been going on for decades…so what exactly has caused the problem of teen pregnancy that we see today I ask? The answer I believe does not lie with the teens.  As an aside I did find it interesting that school officials were saying that there was not a pact..pact or no pact there sure was one heck’ve a spike in the numbers to sound an alarm.  The pact to me was secondary to the real issue.

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By rage, June 27, 2008 at 9:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“That we’re spending way too much time arguing with each other in public about sex education, abstinence, condoms and shame. We’re spending way too little time talking to kids over the kitchen table about sexuality and sexual values.

Anyone ready to make a new pact?”

There should be hands raised all over America to sign on for this pact. We’ve got an issue here that is solvable, if we’ll just admit we were wrong before and vow to move in the right direction from this point forward.

Face it, adolescents are not going to stop screwing to honor any vows of chastity or abstinance until they’re married. They’re going to have sex nightly if they can. So, let’s work from where they are. We hire tutors to get better grades. We send them to athletic and academic camps to gain proficiency in areas where they show weakness. Hell, we will even give them gum for bad breath. So, why is it so hard for us to offer them sex education and contraception options when they’re obviously screwing? We need to grow the hell up. Screw all the birds and bees tomfoolery. This isn’t the 50s! Let’s start being honest and real with our kids.

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By Denial in Gloucester, June 27, 2008 at 1:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There was a pact, anyone wat6ching most of the news media in the New England area , saw some of the girls, their friends and neighbors agreeing they have first hand knowledge that it was a pact

the problem is the City officials, politicians are in denial, they don’t want the “bad reputation” the town will be seen as if they admit it .

There was a pact, admit it and move on,
no wonder no body trusts politicians, they are the last to admit facts

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By Washington Bubble, June 26, 2008 at 5:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I have to admit that I’m amazed that in this day and age that the percentage of teen pregnancies are as high as they are.  With all the resources devoted and directed to the issue of teen pregnancy one would think that the numbers would be on the decline yet this is not the case.  Teen sex is nothing new but I can say that in my neck of the woods, twenty or so years ago this was unheard of in my high school of 3500+.  There were no school daycares, easy avenues to contraceptives, or educational commercials aimed at teen pregnency as we have today.  This is not to say that there weren’t any teens that were pregnant at that time, I’m sure there were somewhere in the world, still it would’ve been considered a bit outside the norm.  I recall at that time society had a dim view on teen pregnancy.  So what changed?  The easy targets I suppose would be the media, (I would say that they are_part of the problem, those that disagree best take a long hard look at what kids are watching and listening to in comparison to 20 years ago..), easy access contraceptives perhaps?  Nah..I’d have to go right to families and society as a whole for the blame.  Not that I consider myself old by any stretch but I do find myself scratching my head at what I see society giving a free pass on nowadays.  Now teen pregnancy is a part of the landscape it seems without even raising an eyebrow.  Now I get to read and hear about 9 and 10 year-olds having oral sex and there is no outrage from society to say enough is enough.  Just the usual passive “That’s just the way things are nowadays…”.  I have trouble believing as some studies indicate that this is solely due to the increase of both parents, or a single parent working so much that kids are just on their own to do as they please.  I agree that this is plays a part in the problem but its not_the problem.  I still feel that as a society we really let our kids down.  What our kids see and hear is what they learn from and if your not telling them then they will pick it up from somewhere else.  A quick example is hearing last week from my nephew who is in 5th grade that a guy in his class has a girlfriend and that they go on dates unsupervised as well as each others houses with all four parents blessing. (This couple has already been caught by school officials making out). I can only muster up a deer-in-the-headlights look wondering what the parents are thinking.  I’m not an old prude, just someone that still thinks responsibilty means something.

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By Jim Yell, June 26, 2008 at 6:23 am Link to this comment
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In the olden days there were huge populations of early term babies. In the old days marriage was not optional. In the old days one mistake and the girl was leveraged into an unhappy marriage with a lout for a husband, or not.

These pregnancies are nothing new. What is new is the fact that we don’t pretend not to notice anymore. Adolescents has been artificially extended and with good reason, as it is hoped the young person is going to use the additional time before official adulthood to get a good education, or at lest learn a skill.

Sadly this doesn’t seem to be the case for many. It is also clear that compulsion doesn’t work, it just leads to more resentment. All we can do is try and educate and keep in front of the adolescent mind the vision of the consequences of responsibilities without any assets for making a living. And, hope for the best. Forcing hypocrisy on them isn’t going to help.

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By kath cantarella, June 26, 2008 at 2:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It would be wise, that when the parents fall down on the job as some inevitably will, to make the school system fill in the gaps. It’s just common sense. If you give children knowledge and responsibility they flourish.

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