…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Hey, Gloucester: Where do babies come from?

Hey there. This is Meg, filling in for Steve. Want a warm-up on that coffee? You know, it’s weird. That Gloucester High School “pregnancy pact” left me with strange cravings for answers to questions that went largely unanswered in the mainsream media coverage…

In following the media circus that ensued after the 17th teenager became pregnant in a year in Gloucester, MA, I noticed no shortage of theories on what went wrong.

Many articles cite young Jamie Lynn Spears’ early motherhood and the new movie Juno as reasons pregnancy has become “cool.” While the media must share in all society’s ills, it seems to me that the portrayal of pregnant teens in popular culture is a mere reflection of their continued presence. Ignoring teen pregnancy is not the answer.

Some of those same articles also faulted maternity clothing designers for making pregnancy more comfortable for fashion-conscious teens. Until Hannah Montana comes out with her own line of “materniteen” wear, however, I’m not going to fault Liz Lange for making pregnancy chic.

Some blamed depressed economic conditions in the small fishing town. They postulate that the girls felt there was no way to move up from their station in life. Maybe they were so depressed about their future prospects that the teens wanted a baby to love them unconditionally?

Though there is no government data beyond the last census on the growing financial troubles many writers point to as a reason for the increase in childbirth in Gloucester, it can be helpful to look at data from 2000. At that time, the national poverty rate was 12.4 percent, Massachusetts was 9.3 percent, and Gloucester was 8.8 percent.

Even if newer numbers do end up supporting claims of economic depression in the town, I’d caution those who suggest that’s the reason for baby season in Gloucester. Let’s give these girls some credit: They all know a baby is not the solution to financial problems.

Cuts in education funding combined with the constant test preparation mandated by No Child Left Behind meant that the Gloucester High School had to cut their sex education classes. Also, the school’s clinic is prohibited from distributing contraception to students due to protests from the hospital that grants operational money to the facility. In May, the clinic was left sorely understaffed when the doctor and nurse practitioner resigned in protest over the contraceptives ban.

“This is one of the most outrageous things I have ever been a part of in my career,” said Dr. Brian Orr after turning in his resignation.

According to a recent AP report, there are only 28 states still enrolled in federal abstinence-only education programs. Almost half have opted out to avoid teaching restrictions and funding insecurity that have become par for the course in the program, known as Title V.

A House Congressional study analyzing the content of abstinence-only education should give educators considering Title V pause. The 2004 study found that two-thirds of abstinence-only curriculums included errors and distortions about public health, contraceptives, abortion, and basic scientific facts. The report also criticized certain programs’ use of religious language and use of stereotypes about the differences between the sexes.

In comparing two state-by-state studies (online here and here), I found a correlation between abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates. In 2006, the three states that received the most funding for abstinence-only programs were Texas, Florida and New York. Those states were fifth, sixth, and fourteenth in terms of teen pregnancies that same year. Vermont and North Dakota had the lowest amount of federal money devoted to abstinence-only programs and also had the least amount of teen pregnancies in 2006.

A more recent study shows students who receive comprehensive sexual education are 50 percent less likely to become pregnant than students subjected to abstinence-only education.

I don’t mean to suggest that sex education will end teen pregnancy as we know it. Young women already know that babies don’t come from storks. However, I’m young enough to remember sex education class, and it’s not the condom-over-the-banana lesson I remember most.

I recall vividly watching a video of a woman giving birth. It was frighteningly real and made it clear that childbirth is not for the weak or unprepared. Not that I was ever really inclined to reproduce, but that video convinced me that any of my potential progeny should come from an adoption center and not my womb.

However, statistics and personal anecdotes bear little on Congressional proceedings on the matter. As Steve wrote last week, Democrats are laying pretty low on the issue. So low, in fact, that they increased funding for abstinence-only education even while more and more states are opting out.

Still, there’s something extra fishy in Gloucester, and it’s not coming from the port. Teen pregnancies have been on the rise nationally over the past few years according to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control report.

The report shows that between 2005 and 2006, the birth rate for teenagers 15-19 years rose 3 percent to 41.9 births per 1,000. This follows a 14-year downward trend in which the teen birth rate fell by 34 percent from its last peak in 1991.

However, Gloucester High School’s average of annual teen pregnancies is still well above the currently heightened national average. According to school officials, an average of four students become pregnant in a typical year, putting their average at more than 60 per 1,000. The national average is about one third less. The 17 pregnancies for this year put the school way above average, at around 280 teen pregnancies per 1,000.

In the Time Magazine article that broke the story, Gloucester High School Principal Joseph Sullivan claimed some of the girls entered a pact to become pregnant together.

At a news conference days after the story broke, Gloucester Mayor Caroline Kirk said there was no evidence to back up Sullivan’s pregnancy pact theory.

“He was foggy in his memory of how he heard about the information,” Kirk said. “When we pressed him for specifics, about who told him, when was he told, his memory failed.” No media outlet has been able to reach Sullivan for comment since.

Kirk’s denial of Sullivan’s assertion raised more questions for me. Why would Sullivan make up a pregnancy pact to explain the rising trend? Which is worse: young girls bonding together to make poor decisions or a big spike in young couples independently making unfortunate choices?

But whether a pact was actually made is immaterial. There are multiple reports of students rejoicing at the receipt of a positive pregnancy test. Reporters trawling fast food restaurants and playgrounds found plenty of extremely young mothers who were very happy with their station in life. There is something about Gloucester that turns teen pregnancy from a crisis to a blessing, and the rest of us may never understand it.

Adolescence is a time when young adults get to start making their own decisions. If girls in Gloucester, or anywhere else, decide to pick out onesies for their babies instead of college majors for themselves, we cannot blame the media, the economy, or anyone other than the girls themselves.

However, in order to determine this was a decision made via free will and not the absence of alternatives, we need to make sure today’s young women know what’s out there. They need to have access to college preparation materials and birth control. They need to be told about the multifarious joys and difficulties of post-secondary education, employment, and childrearing.

Childbirth is a miracle and a blessing for many. So are education and birth control.

Originally published at The Last Chance Democracy Cafe.

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