A Teachable Moment for Teen Pregnancy
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.”
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)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group