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News of Teen Pregnancy Pact Morphs in Front of Our Very Eyes

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June 23rd, 2008

By Guest Blogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

How does a mostly white, depressed, blue-collar, Catholic community explain a steep spike in teen pregnancies amongst its high school girls after they’ve made a “pregnancy pact?” One explanation appeared in Time magazine:

“Families are broken,” says school superintendent Christopher Farmer. “Many of our young people are growing up directionless.”

While the story reports that the teens were not met with the congratulatory responses they hoped for, the Gloucester High School nurse practitioner and doctor did not find open arms for their actions, either: they, like others in their field, began to press for prescribing contraceptives regardless of parental consent after 17 girls got pregnant this year (more than four times the school’s average). The pair resigned in protest at the end of the school year.

In reporting about the Time story, Feministing highlights the story’s implication that the school perhaps served pregnant teens too well (Feministing’s emphasis, mine as well), by offering sex-education (that may not talk about anything other than abstinence) and an on-site daycare center. This sentence is typical Time:

“Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC.”

There’s an implication that a school that takes good care of teen mothers encourages girls to get pregnant, ignoring such larger issues as how can teens be empowered to be responsible sexual beings when many options are not mentioned in their sex-education or when access to contraceptives is so elusive. Not to mention issues like how to motivate students in schools and cities facing massive economic hardships. It’s easier to blame the girls (or programs that treat girls with respect for their agency and potential) than to look at the systems created to support them (such as educational institutions and social services).

Many of the girls are sophomores under the age of 16 (in Massachusetts, it’s a crime to have sex with anyone under that age). Mayor Kirk told Reuters, as reported in an MSNBC story, that authorities “are looking at whether to pursue statutory rape charges. ‘We’re at the very early stages of wrestling with the complexities of this problem,’ she said.”

How quickly does a story about the reasons very young women may be opting to get pregnant (including recent cuts in schools and job losses in an already depressed city) move to explore such topics as whether statutory rape is a factor? (Rumors include the possibility that one would-be father involved with some of these young women was a 24 year-old homeless man.) With lightning speed, if you peruse the stories in the news this week. As the story seems to be evolving—especially as the city’s mayor would push it—the issues about despair, poverty, failing schools and lack of access to birth control (30 miles to get to the nearest clinic where it can currently be obtained unless the school’s practitioners write prescriptions for it) seem to be disappearing, while the focus turns toward attacking the credibility of the school principal and recasting these young women as statutory rape victims. And we wonder why it becomes so difficult to discuss young women’s empowerment in the media?

Guest Blogger Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a regular contributor to Mothers Movement Online and has a monthly column at NPR’s Justice Talking blog as well as writing for many other publications. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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