Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, when teenagers gossiped about one and other the rumors stayed between teens. Not so today.
Combine a lull in a year of presidential election politics, the start of summer, and a principal’s comment to Time magazine, and voila, a rumor that seventeen pregnant girls from Gloucester, Massachusetts all made a pact to get pregnant and raise their children together spreads under the “breaking news” banner.
I first heard about this when local radio hosts who usually focus on Hollywood gossip talked about the story, how naïve these girls must have been, and how they probably saw the movie Juno and thought it would be cool to get pregnant. (Of course if you saw the movie it would be hard not to notice how painful and isolating it was to be pregnant in high school, even if Juno did have a sharp wit). No no no, a co-host offered, it’s Jamie Lynn Spears’ fault: she got pregnant at seventeen and because she is famous she made it cool.
The Gloucester story became a staple on the major networks and cable news outlets, complete with commentators offering their explanations: celebrity culture that gushes over any pregnancy, naïve teens who can’t understand the consequences of their actions, and whether or not there is too much/not enough birth control available for teens.
Left out of the story…the teens' thoughts. That is, until one pregnant girl appeared on Good Morning America with the baby’s father. She said she had been taking birth control pills and had not intentionally gotten pregnant, and there was no pact to get pregnant. Instead she told of a pact to help each other out to deal with the challenges that lie ahead—something that indicates an awareness that having a baby was more than just about buying cute little outfits and having baby shower parties.
The principal later stood by his statement to Time, asserting that there really was a pact to get pregnant. I have no inside information on what the pregnant girls may or may not have said to each other. But I have my doubts that the school principal would have been in on this sort of info either.
Pre-pregnancy pact or not, the reality is that many girls did get pregnant. While blaming Juno and Jamie Lynn make for interesting radio talk, sociologists have studied why teens get pregnant, and there are several more compelling explanations. Let’s consider some of them.
- Real or perceived lack of opportunity
Yes, it seems counterintuitive, but the less economic opportunity the greater likelihood of early pregnancy. It may appear like an irrational decision, especially since having a child is a pretty expensive endeavor.
But here’s why lack of opportunity and poverty predicts higher fertility rates in people of all ages (in the U.S. and globally): when people feel as though bearing a child will not jeopardize a clear, concrete, goal they are less likely to take steps to prevent pregnancy from happening. By contrast, when the prospect of attending college seems very likely and a fulfilling, lucrative career will follow, people are more likely to protect those opportunities.
When I was in high school, we had counselors cheering us through PSATs, SATs, walking us through the college application process and peers that we saw enter into the nation’s top universities. Most of our parents and other family members went to college and often graduate school in order to become professionals and top earners. Having a baby then would have been a devastating detour away from a path of near-certain upper-middle class status.
By contrast, in some communities counselors are few in number and perhaps only focus on a handful of the top students. I have had my own students tell me of high school counselors that actually dissuaded them from applying to college, suggesting it “wasn’t for them.” Pair that with little information about the all-important tests, how or when to fill out a college application, and not having a family member who ever attended college. Now higher education seems more like a fantasy than reality, especially in communities where they see few upper-middle class professionals in their daily lives. Yes, many people from working-class and low-income communities do go on to college and most do not get pregnant, but the stakes seem lower for them to begin with. Gloucester has traditionally been a working-class fishing community, and it has been struggling economically in recent years. While again this may seem counterintuitive, higher teen pregnancy rates are more likely in a community like this than they are in more affluent areas.
- Overall teen birth rates have been falling
You might have heard about the rise in teen birth rates in 2006. This was a shift from fourteen straight years of decline, but as the Centers for Disease Control(CDC) press release notes, “It’s way too early to know if this is the start of a new trend,” but it of course important to take a look at.
According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, between 1990 and 2004 the percentage of birth to women fifteen to nineteen dropped from thirty percent of all births to unmarried women to about 23 percent. In 2004 girls under fifteen accounted for .4 percent of all births to unmarried women, down from .9 percent in
1990. By contrast, births to unmarried women in their twenties increased slightly. Between 1990 and 2005 birth rates had fallen by fifty percent for those under fifteen, and by 34 percent for teens fifteen to nineteen.
The 2006 data tell us that birth rates for those under fifteen continued to decline, and the biggest increase was in births to teens eighteen and nineteen. For fifteen to nineteen-year-olds, the rate rose from 40.5 live births per 1,000 in 2005 to 41.9 births per 1,000 in 2006.
As the CDC notes, “The birth rate for older teens aged 18-19 is 73 births per 1,000 population –- more than three times higher than the rate for teens aged 15-17 (22 per 1,000).” As we can see from the table on the right from the CDC, the fifteen- to seventeen-year-old rate was 77 in 1990, and the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old rate was 168, still substantially higher than in 2006. Abortion rates also fell substantially since the late 1980s. The CDC also found that fewer high school students are sexually active now than in the early 1990s: down from 54 percent in 1991 to just under 48 percent in 2007, and that condom use is way up (from 46 to 62 percent). So despite this high-profile case, the news is mostly good.
As you can see, teen pregnancy is a bit more complicated than a funny movie about it or a profile of a young celebrity would suggest. In addition to socio-economic status, dramatic racial/ethnic differences still persist: African American and Latina fertility rates are higher than that of whites, regardless of age. The reasons for this are complex, and probably related to higher poverty rates of African Americans and Latinos in the population.
And finally, what about the boys (and men) involved? When we talk about teen pregnancy, we often leave them out of the discussion. Despite the reports that practically ignored males, the girls did not get themselves pregnant. But girls are still the ones we gossip about.