“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?