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WETZSTEIN: Many teens choose to get pregnant

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Pregnancy pacts among teenage girls are really nothing new. The 1986 movie "Peggy Sue Got Married" featured one.

When high school senior Peggy Sue said she no longer cared who her boyfriend Charlie dated, best friend Maddy snapped to attention.

"But I always thought you were going to marry Charlie, and Carol would marry Walter, and I'd marry Arthur," Maddy protested to Peggy Sue. "We'd all live on the same street and take our kids to the park together and have barbecues every Sunday. It's going to spoil everything if you and Charlie break up."

The 1960s story line, of course, assumed there would be weddings first, babies later.

Today's big story line has 17 unwed Massachusetts high school girls making a pact to get pregnant together.

The "pact" part of the story is now being downplayed, but what's not in dispute is that the number of pregnancies at Gloucester High School jumped from four to 17 in a year.

A favorite media angle is to imply that these pregnancies might not have happened if Gloucester High officials had allowed the distribution of birth-control without parental notification, as some health experts wanted.

This is where I would like to beg to differ. This story points up a gaping hole in teen-pregnancy prevention, which is that we don't really know what to say to teens who have decided it's time to get pregnant. You know, like the Gloucester girl who reportedly said "Sweet!" when she got her positive test results.

There are quite a few happy teen mothers out there. In fact, 22 percent of teen births are "intended," according to the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth. (Some of these teen moms are married, of course.)

But teens who want a baby will laugh off exhortations to use birth control and ignore pleas to stay abstinent. Since these are our two main messages, what else can we do?

First, understand why some girls decide to get pregnant.

A 1998 Guttmacher Institute study of 187 California teen mothers - 32 percent of whom intended to get pregnant - offers some answers.

"I like babies, having something that's mine," one teen mother told researchers Jennifer J. Frost and Selene Oslak. "It's weird, but something or someone is telling me to have a baby," said another mother.

Some teens will see having a baby as a way to confirm their love relationships.

"I got you pregnant on purpose because I want you in my life for the rest of my life," a young man tells his baby's teenage mama in Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas' 2005 book, "Promises I Can Keep."

Moreover, motherhood can catapult a teen into womanhood and a higher social status, the two authors wrote. To poor girls, becoming a mother is "the surest source of accomplishment within their reach."

Parents can best address teen pregnancy - intended and unintended - by talking constantly with their children about getting an education, setting life goals, getting married and starting a family, said Sarah S. Brown, chief executive officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Talk a lot about "the timing" of these events, and be clear about your views, she advised.

It's also important to explain to teens that babies and children do best with adult parents - mothers and fathers - who are committed to each other and can provide a stable home.

After all, she added, "babies don't provide unconditional love. They demand it."

Cheryl Wetzstein's column On the Family appears Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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