Values-free teen pregnancy coverage

junoThe news of a pregnancy boom at the Massachusetts fishing town's Gloucester High School has made an amazing fast lap around the Internets over the last couple of days. The story seems to stem from Wednesday's publication on Time magazine's Web site of the allegation that about eight girls younger than 16 had made a "pact" to get pregnant. Publications from Reuters, The Boston Globe, CBS News, The Independent and a New York Times blog have all picked up on the scandalous allegation and cited the Time piece as the source almost as if it were a fact despite the scanty amount of factual detail available at this point.

Here's the original Time piece:

As summer vacation begins, 17 girls at Gloucester High School are expecting babies -- more than four times the number of pregnancies the 1,200-student school had last year. Some adults dismissed the statistic as a blip. Others blamed hit movies like Juno and Knocked Up for glamorizing young unwed mothers. But principal Joseph Sullivan knows at least part of the reason there's been such a spike in teen pregnancies in this Massachusetts fishing town. School officials started looking into the matter as early as October after an unusual number of girls began filing into the school clinic to find out if they were pregnant. By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, "some girls seemed more upset when they weren't pregnant than when they were," Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse. "We found out one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless guy," the principal says, shaking his head.

Most of the news organizations picking up on this story, except maybe The Globe, have relied heavily on the Time piece for those tricky things journalists call "facts" and the more pliable things known as analysis.

One question that I wish I could get an answer to is whether Time had more than just the principal as a source for the "pregnancy pact" allegation. Do written reports exist on any of this documenting these alleged facts? How about the "24-year-old homeless guy?" I believe he has just been accused of what is commonly known as statutory rape and could be facing years of hard time if prosecuted and convicted.

Moving beyond my personal frustration with the lack of evidence supporting the "pact" allegation, the Time piece, which was largely followed by the other news organizations, made only a slight effort to address the moral issues behind the recent national trend of a rise in teen pregnancies. The fact that this is an economically depressed "fiercely Catholic enclave" that has seen the break-up of families is featured prominently in the article. But that is about all we get in terms of morality and values coverage.

The solution to this apparent problem -- handing out birth control pills at the school with or without parental consent -- has not been greeted with open arms in this community to say the least. The article insinuates that it's those fierce Catholics who are forcing the only viable solution to this problem out of town. But as the article briefly mentions at the end, how would birth control have kept these girls -- who made a pact to get pregnant -- from getting pregnant? I suspect there is a deeper issue here that a few birth control pills would fail to prevent.

An interesting angle in the article comes in the following two paragraphs of the six paragraph story:

The girls who made the pregnancy pact -- some of whom, according to Sullivan, reacted to the news that they were expecting with high fives and plans for baby showers -- declined to be interviewed. So did their parents. But Amanda Ireland, who graduated from Gloucester High on June 8, thinks she knows why these girls wanted to get pregnant. Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. "They're so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally," Ireland says. "I try to explain it's hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3 a.m."

The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. "We're proud to help the mothers stay in school," says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center.

There is an ironic disconnect that can be read in-between the lines. The school's policy of removing the inconveniences of being a teen parent sounds like fine progressive social policy. But why should school officials be surprised when their students actually go ahead and get pregnant? Why should teen pregnancy be viewed -- as it is in the article and by school officials -- as a negative particularly when they believe that a child will provide them with a source of unconditional love?

The missing element from all of these articles is questions and answers on what is happening to the community's morals and values for girls to not only feel free to get pregnant, but desire to do so outside the boundaries of which society generally considers appropriate. Before you call me a morally prudish, note that these girls are below the state's age of consent, which means there was potentially a crime involved when these girls became pregnant depending on the age of the potential father.

But beyond the rather arbitrary, but legally necessary, issue of the girls being under than the age of consent, will reporters start asking the difficult moral questions involved in these stories? How did children in this "fiercely Catholic enclave" start to think that pre-martial sexual behavior was acceptable? When did it move on to a desire to be a mother in order to obtain unconditional love? Perhaps it was the day-care centers or the sex education courses? Or was it just the fact that the community has become economically depressed? How does Barack Obama's message about the importance of fatherhood play into this story? Apparently even liberal politicians believe it is socially undesirable for children to grow up without the active presence of a father.

Or is the father's relationship with his daughter(s) now somehow out of bounds for progressives? See this post titled "Pure Tyranny", on Judith Warner's New York Times Blog on June 12, 2008:

It was also from The Times, from May 19, and featured 70-odd girls, of "early grade school to college" age, with their fathers, stepfathers and fathers-in-law-to-be, at the ninth annual, largely evangelical "Father-Daughter Purity Ball."

"The evening, which alternated between homemade Christian rituals and giddy dancing" -- and which culminated, for at least one father and his daughters, with a dreamy walk in the night around a lake, "was a joyous public affirmation of the girls' sexual abstinence until they wed," said the Times article.

"From this, it's only a matter of degree to the man in Austria," I'd scribbled across the first page.

The "man in Austria," of course, was 73-year-old Josef Fritzl, who was around that time also making headlines after it was discovered that he had kept his daughter, Elisabeth, 42, locked up in a cellar for 24 years, during which time he'd raped her regularly, and had her bear him seven children.

Another New York Times blog The Lede appropriately highlighted Thursday the "Dueling Teen Pregnancy Tales: Jamie Lynn and Gloucester High" in post that suggests that Time missed the larger story that teen pregnancies are becoming rather acceptable these days. A guest blogger at the Crunchy Con blog also highlighted the moral angle to the story, appropriately titling the post "Seventeen."

Of course there is the giant question of whether or not this is any of society's business. Aside from the issue of these children being below the age of consent, there is nothing illegal about their actions in getting pregnant and desiring to have a child. Sure it may seem irresponsible, but that's no one's business, right? Even parents apparently shouldn't have the right to consent to school practitioners prescribing contraceptives to their children. Or should they? Within these articles there is a sense that what is happening is somehow deeply troubling, but no one is really asked to address that element.

Reporters make a huge mistake when they leave values and morality out of their coverage. Sure, discussing these issues means addressing traditional ideals most progressive thinkers and politicians assumed were abandoned by society 40 years ago, but they continue to lurk in the background. And reporters, unfortunately, generally continue to ignore them.

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