By Sheila Gibbons
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The media latched on to a Massachusetts high school "pregnancy pact," cooing with young mothers-to-be while clucking over high teen pregnancy rates. But the real story was about cuts in preventive programs and a lack of reproductive care for teens.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Time was when an unmarried pregnant teen would be spirited away to the home of a distant relative, or a facility for unwed mothers, to have her baby and give it up for adoption. Her family would make excuses about her absence. Then she would return to school, and though classmates might snicker, little or nothing would be said.
It happened to a friend of mine in the 1960s, a lively girl muffled by secrecy and shame. There were no feel-good "Juno" or "Knocked Up" moments for her, no giddy tales of how teen celebrity mom Jamie Lynn Spears is furnishing her baby's nursery. Movies and television rarely depicted pregnancy, even within marriage. Stars who had out-of-wedlock children hid them. Abortion was not yet legal.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the pregnancy boom at a Gloucester, Mass., high school, where expectant students and teen mothers have been doing interviews with major news organizations and television networks.
The explosion of media interest in June in the so-called "pregnancy pact" of 17 students at Gloucester High School has left many wondering what society in general, and these teens in particular, consider appropriate social and sexual choices for them and others their age.
And wow, did the thought of all those young women supposedly going out of their way to get pregnant attract the satellite trucks and microphones. They are mostly gone now that the story has turned out to be, if not a fabrication, a dramatic misperception.
Gloucester, about 30 miles north of Boston, is the United States' oldest seaport. Its once-robust fishing industry is in decline, and with that has come diminished prospects for its working-class population of 30,000. Gloucester was the setting for the film adaptation of "The Perfect Storm," the true story of fishermen's desperate attempts to survive a raging gale.
Aptly, a perfect storm erupted when Time published a story June 18 ("Pregnancy Pact at Gloucester High") quoting the school's principal, who said that the rather large number of pregnancies there was no accident.
"Nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together," Kathleen Kingsbury reported. Time's online article is illustrated by a photograph of a very pregnant, nearly nude female in profile, a la Annie Leibovitz's famous 1991 Vanity Fair cover photo of movie star Demi Moore.
After CNN, which is owned by Time's parent company, also went with the "pregnancy pact" headline, journalists descended on the city. Gloucester Daily Times editor Ray Lamont, whose newspaper in March had published Kristen Grieco's original--and non-sensational--reports on the Gloucester High baby boom, found himself doing interviews with BBC World News, Irish Radio and New York's WABC.
Some of the arriving journalists' descriptions were cloying: "Strollers and sippy cups will replace pencil cases and backpacks as the must-have back-to-school items for more than a dozen pregnant Gloucester High School students next year," reported ABC News.
On "Good Morning America," Chris Cuomo interviewed a Gloucester High mom-to-be, 17, and her boyfriend, 20. Cuomo jumped right into the story with them, saying that having a baby was the best thing that ever happened to him and wishing the same for them, even whispering greetings to the fetus.
A spike in pregnancies from four at Gloucester High last year to 17 this year is one thing. A "pact," however, is something else altogether. The latter conjures up images of sophomores slinking through school hallways with their backpacks, eyeing potential hook-ups who will happily fulfill their part of the bargain.
By now people who've been following this story know there may not have been any pact at all. Students and the mayor have denied it. The principal Kingsbury interviewed won't discuss it further. Time has replaced the word "pact" with "boom" in the headline of its online article.
What everyone seems to agree on now is only that some of the teens welcomed pregnancy. The assertion that there was a "pact" drew media looking for a hot story, and possibly a teen trend.
The confidence that there had been a pact began evaporating within a few days of Time's report but not before CNN, MSNBC, CBS News, the Associated Press and others had repeated the allegation, and it had been picked up by news organizations and bloggers around the world, transformed into a tale of maternal "girls gone wild."
What the ongoing reporting eventually did reveal were the fault lines running through the ground on which Gloucester school and city officials, health care professionals and the students stand with regard to teen pregnancy and reproductive health.
What started as the national media's breathless reporting about a teen pregnancy clique led to more sober pieces explaining that school funding cuts had eliminated Gloucester High's sexuality education classes (RHRealityCheck.org); that the school forbids the distribution of condoms and other contraception without parental consent, a rule that prompted the school's doctor and nurse to resign in protest in May (Reuters); and that the nearest clinic where teens can obtain birth control is 20 miles away (Poynter.org).
"Rumors aside, one thing that is true is that you don't have to walk very far in Gloucester to find an unwed teenage mother," ABC's Anne-Marie Dorning reported. "Baby-faced teens pushing baby carriages seem to be everywhere."
The director of the high school's day care program for infants of students boasted to Dorning that all four of last year's student mothers went on to college. That's commendable, but we don't know whether they'll remain and graduate. It's a steep climb for student moms; according to the Washington-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, only 41 percent of teens who begin families before age 18 complete high school, let alone college.
Thankfully, we've grown more compassionate and supportive of pregnant teens since my old friend's pregnancy. There are good programs that can guide them through a full-term pregnancy or an abortion, whichever they choose. Societal disapproval of unmarried motherhood has waned as respect for reproductive choice has increased and well-known women have chosen to become parents outside of marriage. However, given the tongue-waggish tone of much of the news coverage, overall the Gloucester students didn't benefit much from more generous attitudes toward single mothers.
Our understandable concern about the life-long health, psychological and financial hazards for pregnant teens continues, and so should our concern about the shortcomings of the reporting on the Gloucester students. What we really needed from the journalists crowding into Gloucester was less shock and awe and more probing about why girls would choose early pregnancy over their freedom and their futures. Nowhere could I find interviews with Gloucester teens (even speaking anonymously) who chose not to continue a pregnancy, or who were using contraception to avoid pregnancy, or were concerned about having so little access to either option.
The irony is that a teen pregnancy story becomes a sensation and leads the news, but meaningful analysis of why so many very young women are making such choices remains unexplored.
Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.