Teen Pregnancy, the Gloucester 18 and a China Cup

If you were giving a talk on teen pregnancy to a conservative, faith-based group who cares, what messages would you want to convey?” This was the question I recently asked someone in our family planning division at work. I was serious. I wanted her perspective. She did not hesitate. “I would tell them we live in a sex-saturated society, and everyone else is talking about sex – they need to be part of the conversation. I would tell them that you are not giving a teenager a mixed message if you tell them what you believe and what you would want them to do, and yet arm them with tools and knowledge about contraception if they make a different choice.”  It was a great conversation.

So armed with this, as well as facts and figures that tell more of the story of teen pregnancy I led a discussion at our church on Sunday.

To give a face to the story I chose, along with the numbers, to show a clip from a documentary called “The Gloucester 18”.

In 2008 Gloucester, Massachusetts – a seaport city known for its lobster, fishing and The Perfect Storm found itself in the center of a world-wide media frenzy. Reporters from as far away as Australia and Brazil descended on the town with cameras,microphones and all the other apparatus needed for a sensational story. The reason?  There were four times the number of teen pregnancies than previous years and word had surfaced that 18 teenage girls had made a pact to become pregnant. As the nurse practitioner at Gloucester High School said “People love scandal”.

News networks preyed on this story like hawks and the girls and their families were deluged with phone calls from CNN to Dr. Phil. So what is the real story behind these Gloucester teenagers? More importantly what’s the story behind teen pregnancy in general?

What we know:

We know several things. We know that teen pregnancy is a complicated issue and those that ignore the complexity are living in denial. “Just Don’t Do It” or teaching kids about sex by showing them Barbie and Ken in a shoe box seem to be  ineffective ways to deal with teens and sex, teens and pregnancy. While the United States has seen a significant decline in recent years, the lowest rate in 70 years, we still have the highest rate in the developing world, surpassing Great Britain, France, The Netherlands and Sweden.

We know other things as well….

  • that 50% of teen mothers get a high school diploma by age 22, compared with 90% of teen girls who do not give birth.
  • that teen childbearing costs U.S.taxpayers about $9 billion each year.
  • that girls born to teen mothers are about 30% more likely to become teen mothers themselves.
  • that children of teen parents are more likely to do poorly in school and to drop out of school
  • that half of teen pregnancies end up in abortion – if we care about abortion we need to face and care about the issue of teen pregnancy
  • that southern states have a higher rate of pregnancy than northern states

And there’s so much more. So when the discussion comes around to “Do we expect abstinence only programs to work in the world as we know it” I would say no. Any good sex education program has abstinence as a part of the curriculum, but the operative word is part not the entire curriculum.

Back to the Gloucester 18 – a face to the problem.  The truth is, there was no pact. There was no conspiracy to all get pregnant at the same time. Most of the girls found out about a pact by watching the nightly news. The stories portrayed are poignant and real. In the spirit of a good documentary there is a raw and compelling truth that comes through and you can’t stay detached through facts and figures because they now have names and faces and most of all, babies. Beyond the newspaper stories were kids having kids. Girls searching for meaning and purpose, girls looking for stability and love, girls trying to please boyfriends and parents, friends and school authorities. Girls who were still trying to grow up facing the task of motherhood; of parenting.

As much as I may want to wave my wand and make teenagers make different choices, I don’t have that ability. But I can understand the problem, present my view passionately and at the same time be willing to recognize the world we live in, a world we must respond to in ways that are wise. Our world doesn’t operate off a Biblical world-view and God doesn’t force that world view on anyone; He may long for it, but He doesn’t force it. So what should my response be? Compassion? Common sense? Tough Love? Interest? All that and perhaps more? 

As I think about the issue of teen pregnancy and teen sexuality I think about sex as a china cup. A fragile, expensive china cup created by a Master Craftsman, with a unique and beautiful design. But once passed from the Craftsman to us to care for, the china cup broke into many pieces. And each of us try to put together these broken pieces, try to put back a pattern and restore a sense of what was. Teen pregnancy is just one broken piece of the many. Can the Church be part of a solution to put it back together?

12 thoughts on “Teen Pregnancy, the Gloucester 18 and a China Cup

  1. Teen pregnancy is caused by poverty, low levels of parental education and poor academic attainment; it doesn’t cause these things – it is caused by it. Teen parents’ children are not more likely to be teen parents, and the number of siblings is more indicative of the age at first birth than whether the parents were teen parents (look up any recent study in the sociology journals). Teen mothers had no future before they ever gave birth. 1.2% of welfare recipients in the U.S. are lone teenage mothers. Also why is the focus on the female parent and not the male parent? Comprehensive sex ed still has abstinence in it, therefore it is dangerous and religiously motivated; sex ed should not mention abstinence or mention it only very briefly/in passing, like in Britain. Though unfortuneatly schools here don’t give out condoms, unlike some of your schools.A good article, just wanted to clarify this stuff – it was well-written, interesting and informative. After all, teens should be encouraged to express theselves sexually, practice safe sex, explore their kinks, fantasies and desires etc without fear of coercion, rape or paedophilia or judgement by others which curbs their freedom and perverts their blossoming sexuality. And religious teens, who are often religious simply due to being indoctrinated by religious families, deserve these rights as well. The ‘concern’ over teen pregnancy is just fear of female sexuality, misogyny, religiosity, classism and the denial of sexual rights to teenagers until they are legal adults. In Britain and America the teen pregnancy discourse gets deliberately confused with the lone mother discourse, although most teen mothers are not lone mothers and most lone mothers aren’t teens (3%of lone mothers are teens in UK).

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  2. I’m so glad you told the truth that there was never a pregnancy pact in Gloucester. It was a slip of the tongue by the high school principal. He resigned soon after because of the publicity from his mistake. Even though Gloucester is maligned for its high pregnancy rate especially in that year, it is my understanding, though not well-researched, that Holyoke’s rate was twice Gloucester’s.

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    1. I’m so glad you included the story of the principal in this comment. Your understanding is absolutely correct there are other communities with far higher rates including Lowell (featured in the movie and actually the clip I used at the Scandal class) Springfield (one of the girls featured in the film was pregnant at 12 years old) Gloucester doesn’t even rank in the top 25. http://www.massteenpregnancy.org/research/teen-pregnancy-and-birth-rates Thanks for bringing up both of these critical points.

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  3. This is such a complex modern day reality…. I feel like my brain is crossing cultures as I try to come to grips with it. I feel out of my element, anxious, baffled, disturbed. Thank you for articulating the issue so clearly. I’m curious about how the Sunday School class went as well. We need to explore the “why” of abstinence more fully, with greater degrees of honesty. We need to share our own stories and our own temptations. Grace-bathed honest communication seems the best place to start….but I’m worried it’s not enough….!

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    1. Thanks Robynn and Cathy for asking the question about how the class went – it was a good discussion. Came about to the whole piece of being “transformers” of culture, a huge and complicated issue in and of itself. One of the things I said in the class and believe at the core of my being is that as a church we separate out all these “sex” issues instead of looking at them together under the umbrella of a healthy God-given sexuality. When we fragment them, we don’t get the full picture and so only form partial responses that don’t satisfy. And sharing stories is huge. Thanks for your always insightful responses.

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  4. What a masterful framing of a complex issue, Marilyn! I’d love to know more about how the discussion unfolded at your church and if participants had ideas about ways the church could be involved in this issue. How can we not be involved, as parents, as church ourselves, as the villages that raise our children —- and their children? I love your fragile and artful china cup analogy and think of the china cups I inherited from my grandmother and the views of sex and sexuality that were passed down in my family, but contrast all that with the description of our society as “sex saturated” with sex a focus of conversation. We do need to be part of the conversation!

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    1. Cathy – thank you so much. I think the china cup analogy was probably inspired because I hadn’t even thought about that until I got up to lead the discussion. And yes to being a part of the conversation! The conversation at church was interesting but just the beginning of the story…..would love to talk more with you about this.

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  5. This is so sad, and scary for mothers of daughters especially. The church should definitely be part of the solution, kids might not like this and sometimes the truth is really hard to accept. The statistics tell a sad reality that kids can’t deny, isn’t it better to be safe then sorry? Religion whether Christianity or other, does forbid premarital sex, not because God is boring and doesn’t want us to have fun. Only because He loves His creation and doesn’t want us to get hurt. Many teenagers will retort by saying they should have the freedom to make their own choices, they are right, but then they should remember the right of their babies also. If a pregnant teen decides to abort she is stealing the right of her child to live, that child has the right to choose, and I know no child, if they could express themselves, would choose to be aborted or given up for adoption. And teenage boys should be talked to also, it is not just the girls. Most of the time the girls are pressured into it, they feel they have to please their boyfriends, why should the poor girl have to suffer alone?

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    1. So glad you brought up the part of the boy not having to bear any of the cost! So true. You articulated this response so beautifully – well said! And yes to the church being a part of the solution. Thank you so much for coming by. I’m so glad to have your voice in the discussion.

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