- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Early last month, federal health officials reported an increase in teenage pregnancy. Barely a week later, tabloid headlines blared the news that popular 16-year-old TV star Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant.

The news sent shock waves through homes across America, as parents grappled with explaining to their children why Jamie Lynn, who portrays a wholesome and self-confident teen in Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101,” was now gracing the covers of tabloid magazines with an ever-expanding belly.

Jamie Lynn’s condition also created an uproar in the press and on television. Commentators debated whether her 18-year-old boyfriend should be charged with statutory rape, and Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee weighed in with the opinion that the teenage actress — younger sister of pop singer Britney Spears — did the “right thing” by not having an abortion.

“I’m sure there are those who are genuinely concerned for Jamie, but in all the frenzy, there also seems to be a certain degree of glee at finding a new ‘fallen role model’ to obsess over,” said Wendy Shalit, author of “Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It’s Not Bad To Be Good.”

Beyond the celebrity gossip headlines is the reality of teenage pregnancy, with Jamie Lynn now in a situation faced by about 750,000 other American girls each year, said Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of “Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student.”

“No one should be surprised,” she said. “This incident with Jamie Lynn should be looked at as a logical consequence of the type of education and guidance that we give to young people these days — that sexuality is part of their lives at any age.”

What’s more, say some observers, is that Miss Spears’ decision to keep her baby highlights the latest Hollywood trend established by several recent, popular movies.

But Jamie Lynn isn’t shaping the entertainment culture; rather, she is an example of what is wrong with it, said Hollywood observer Andrew Breitbart.

“She is the car crash of the worst of Hollywood with the worst caricature of rural America,” said Mr. Breitbart, co-author of “Hollywood, Interrupted,” which examines Hollywood excesses and chronicles how stars are rewarded for behaviors that once would have been considered career-ending scandals.

Hollywood, at least for now, appears to be embracing teenage pregnancy, and it’s a pop culture shift that some pro-life groups are willing to praise. Movies such as “Juno,” “Waitress” and “Knocked Up” center around young women who get pregnant and decide against abortion.

“I think these are positive developments, because so often young women are told that your life will end if you have this child,” said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. “These movies are helping to show this is not the case.”

While Ms. Wright is pleased that movies now feature the heroines who reject the option of abortion, she stops short of giving a pass to Hollywood altogether.

“One of the myths of Hollywood is that you can have sex and there won’t be consequences,” she said. “Perhaps [Miss Spears] had been gleaning too much from the Hollywood culture, but at least she is taking responsibility and not doing the convenient thing.”

Miss Spears has said she plans to keep the baby and raise it in her home state of Louisiana.

Ms. Wright said parents should not be worried about what to tell their children.

“The conversations that can be struck up can be quite healthy,” she said. “They can talk to their daughters about the consequence of having sex outside of marriage, and that the best choice is to refrain so your children can have a mother and father.”

Carole Joffe, a professor of sociology at the University at California at Davis, who studies reproductive health issues, also said Jamie Lynn’s pregnancy gives parents a good opening to talk frankly with their children about sex.

But Ms. Joffe’s idea of what the conversation should entail vastly differs from Ms. Wright’s. Ms. Joffe proposes that parents, community health clinics — even church youth groups — take the opportunity to remind teens about the variety of contraceptive methods available, as well as all the options available for girls should they become pregnant.

She said it is unfortunate that Jamie Lynn’s pregnancy highlights that abortion is still taboo.

Jamie Lynn probably couldn’t chance having an abortion from a public relations standpoint, because if anyone found out — and they likely would have because of the paparazzi that follow stars everywhere — it could have ruined her career, Ms. Joffe said.

Abortion is an “honorable option” that is still deeply stigmatized in this country, she said.

Ms. Joffe said pro-life groups are spinning Jamie Lynn’s situation for their own benefit, praising her for not having an abortion while ignoring the deeper issues involved.

“To me what is striking about this whole thing is it hasn’t opened up the cultural conversation that we need to have,” Ms. Joffe said. “Teenagers — even if they are stars of shows that valorize virginity — are sexually active. Abstinence-only education clearly hasn’t worked.”

For the first time in 15 years, the U.S. teen birthrate increased in 2006, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That is from the most recent data available.

The teen birth rate remains near an all-time low, having declined 34 percent since 1991. However, in 2006, the birthrate for 15- to 19-year-olds rose 3 percent, or about an extra 20,000 births compared with 2005, the NCHS reported early last month.

Regardless of the trend, Mr. Breitbart, a father of four, said he doesn’t appreciate the Spears family’s decision to sell the story of Jamie Lynn’s impending motherhood to a tabloid and thus thrust the topic of teen pregnancy into American households.

According to press accounts, Jamie Lynn will be paid $1 million for her story after the baby is born from OK magazine, which broke the news of her pregnancy.

“If she decided to keep this kid she could have dropped out [of her television show] for private reasons, had the baby, and given the kid up for adoption,” said Mr. Breitbart, proprietor of the Breitbart.com news site. “That would have been the moral high road, not selling the story to the highest bidder.”

Mr. Breitbart said his wife has decided not to allow their children to watch “Zoey 101” anymore. He said the Jamie Lynn saga is an example of the sexual degradation of America.

“Doesn’t anybody remember the old sequence of events of how this was supposed to happen?” he said. “You can’t even have a normal, good old American high school coming-of-age, getting to second base in 10th grade — now it’s third grade. It’s just speeding up so quickly and people are fearful of voicing opposition for fear of being called a square.”

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