When a 15-year-old girl in Gloucester, Massachusetts, found herself pregnant recently, she was not particularly alarmed. Instead, she ran off to share the news with her friends, exclaiming, "Sweet!", according to one press report.
The teenager is one of 17 young girls at Gloucester High School to become pregnant this year. The school's annual rate of teen pregnancy is usually three or four.
Initial press reports, which swept the country like a brush fire, alleged that the girls had formed a "pregnancy pact", agreeing to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Subsequently, the school principal, Joseph Sullivan, corrected the record, saying that he did not recall using the word "pact" when interviewed by TIME Magazine, but he stood by his statement that "a significant number of the pregnancies, especially among the younger students, were the result of deliberate and intentional behaviour."
The plethora of pregnancies has reopened a national dialogue around the causes of and the solutions to teen pregnancy in America, which again is on the increase following a period of decline. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), teen pregnancy rates in the US rose in 2007 for the first time in 14 years. Condom use among teens declined during the same period. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) reports that an estimated 750,000 American teens will become pregnant in 2008; most of these pregnancies will be unplanned. It says, the US has more teen pregnancies than any other developed nation.
The story of the Gloucester girls has fuelled speculation as well as educated debate about everything from pop culture to day care centres in high schools and abstinence-only messages vs. the dispersal of free contraceptives without parental knowledge in high schools.
Some social critics say that films, such as the Academy-award winning 'Juno' and 'Knocked Up', both of which romanticised teen pregnancy and made it look easy, have spawned new ideas about having a baby among impressionable teenagers. Others add that the proliferation of celebrity magazines featuring star pregnancies suggest that babies are fashionable. Fashion itself is increasingly sexualised and promoted to younger target audiences. And TV programmes routinely include explicit sexual scenes - the number of such scenes has nearly doubled since 1998, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit organisation that focuses on major health issues in America.
Public health experts focus more on the failure of the Bush Administration's push for the abstinence-only education approach. According to the highly-respected Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexual and reproductive health issues and trends, federal "abstinence until marriage" programmes have been ineffective in teaching young people sexual responsibility or in changing their sexual behaviour. Further, sex education advocates urge better education around safe sex and the distribution of condoms.
But, what do Gloucester's teenagers say? One male student told a reporter that "when you live [here], there's nothing to do but have babies." But Alycia Mazzeo disagreed. Pregnant at 14 and now the mother of a seven-month-old daughter, she says, "it's not all cute things like dressing up your baby," adding that she'd like to talk to other girls about the reality of being a teenage mother.
Gloucester last saw this kind of media frenzy when it lost many of its fishermen to "The Perfect Storm." Now the small fishing town outside of Boston is in the spotlight again because a group of girls, pregnant by intention or not, have vowed to stick together while raising their babies. Their school has child-care facilities for up to seven mothers; the facility is already full for next year.
Amid the furore, school and city officials are debating how to improve their sex education programmes and whether or not to provide free contraception, which many in the tight-knit Catholic community oppose. In May, the school's top health officials, Dr Brian Orr and nurse practitioner, Kim Daly, resigned in a dispute over the distribution of contraceptives. Both Orr and Daly supported confidential distribution to students; the hospital that provides funds to the school clinic objected. To date, school Superintendent, Christopher Farmer, has been quiet on the issue, commenting only that public schools have a responsibility to help young mothers complete their education.
Advocates of in-school day-care and other programmes designed to support pregnant youth say that the situation calls for a delicate balance between responding to students' needs, while sending a clear message that it is not okay for teens to get pregnant. Diana Makhlouf, director of the tee-parenting programme at another high school near Boston, calls the situation "complex." Girls are not getting pregnant just because their school has a day-care centre, she says.
Bill Albert, chief programme officer for the national campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, says taking care of teenage moms is the right thing to do. But adds, "We have to be equally strong in sending a message preventing future teen pregnancy, and about how raising children and having children is an adult activity."
Whatever position an individual or organisation takes on solving the renewed teen pregnancy crisis that looms in America, there is consensus on one point: Parents, schools and others in the community need to talk about sex, contraception and babies. One psychology professor put it this way, "We need to really help kids think this through."