Thursday, Jun. 26, 2008
By NANCY GIBBS
You know you've found a perfect cultural touchstone when everyone brushes past it on the way to opposite conclusions. The tale of the Gloucester High School "pregnancy pact" has exposed many culprits, many causes and much confusion over what it actually tells us about anything larger than the luck and judgment of 18 now infamous teenage girls.
When my TIME colleague Kathleen Kingsbury first quoted Gloucester High principal Joseph Sullivan as saying that the reason pregnancies at his school quadrupled this year was that a group of sophomore girls "made a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together," the story made headlines from here to Australia--but no one could agree about what it meant. If only Massachusetts hadn't rejected federal funds for abstinence-only education, lamented Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. If only the school health clinic had been allowed to dispense birth control pills, countered its medical director, Dr. Brian Orr, who resigned over the contraception ban. If only No Child Left Behind hadn't diverted funds from better health education, charged Gloucester mayor Carolyn Kirk. If only Mars had not been in Leo in the eighth house, suggested Monica at Astrology Mundo, who had predicted a flare-up of teen sex around the summer solstice. The culture was an irresistible target, after movies like Juno "glamorized" unwed motherhood; if only the school's "marauding narcissistic sluts" hadn't followed the toxic example of movie stars and the Spears sisters, wrote some bloggers, who longed for the return of the scarlet letter.
I wonder if the critics would be so quick to condemn if they viewed the story another way. There is certainly troubling anecdotal evidence that some of the girls set out to get pregnant together. But other girls talk about a different kind of resolution. What if the "problem" in evidence at Gloucester High has more to do with the rejection of abortion than the acceptance of teen pregnancy?
It is easy for a school to know how many students give birth each year, but--especially in a heavily Catholic town like Gloucester--it is impossible to know how many pregnancies are terminated. Birthrates are not the same as pregnancy rates, and the national trends in both tell an interesting story. While 750,000 teens become pregnant every year, that is the lowest level in 30 years, according to the Guttmacher Institute, down 36% from a peak in 1990. Abortion rates have fallen even faster; since the late 1980s, the abortion rate for girls ages 15 to 17 has fallen 55%, and this year the overall U.S. abortion rate is at its lowest level since 1974.
At the same time, we are in the middle of a baby boomlet; the 4.3 million babies born in 2006 were the most since 1961. And among teenage girls, though the birthrate has generally been falling for the past two decades, it did rise 3% in 2006 for girls 15 to 17. No one can quite explain why this is.
Which brings us back to Gloucester. What if the visible leap in pregnancies is part of a different trend, which the national studies confirm: not necessarily more kids having sex or more girls getting pregnant but instead more of those who do deciding to have the baby rather than abort it? Consider Lindsey Oliver, a Gloucester student who says she found herself pregnant despite being on the Pill. She told Good Morning America that she made her own pact with friends to help them get through their unplanned pregnancies together. She and her boyfriend, a 20-year-old community-college student, talked about trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation.
Whether a girl--or a woman--decides to end a pregnancy or see it through is as complex an emotional and moral and medical calculation as she ever faces. But I wonder if some soft message has taken hold when the data suggest that more women facing hard choices are deciding to carry the child to term. This has been the mission of the crisis-pregnancy-center movement, the more than 4,000 centers and hotlines and support groups around the country that aim to talk women out of having abortions and offer whatever support they can. If not in Hollywood, then certainly in Gloucester, teen parents and their babies face long odds against success in life. Surely they deserve more sympathy and support than shame and derision, if the trend that they reflect is not a typical teenager's inclination to have sex but rather a willingness to take responsibility for the consequences.