Seeking solidarity: The pregnancy pact

What? The latest trend, maybe?

When I was in college, my girlfriend told me about how parents in her high school had worried that Basic Instinct might make their daughters turn lesbian. And, of course, in a small town with nothing for the kids to do, apparently it seemed like a good idea. And the boyfriends, she said, didn’t seem to mind. They were hoping to get some extra action.

Ah, such halcyon days, when girls sharing orgasms was something for parents to worry about. We might wonder if parents in Gloucester, Massachusetts are wishing that was their concern.

Right. Kathleen Kingsbury broke the story for Time:

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.

Okay. Right. Did you catch that?

Over at FOX News, psychiatrist Keith Ablow blames media glamorization of teen pregnancy. And MySpace. It is an interesting theory.

With films such as “Juno” scoring well among critics and moviegoers last year and the media’s great attention to the birth Thursday of 17-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears’ daughter, many say teen pregnancy is being glamorized in the media.

Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and FOX News contributor, said factors such as these may have played into a reported pregnancy pact made by girls at Gloucester High School in Gloucester, Mass., where the pregnancy rate has quadrupled in the past year ….

…. “It’s shocking,” Ablow said. “But the other thing we should realize is that we are hot on the heels of Jamie Lynn Spears deciding to start a family and of mass media embracing the notion and waiting with bated breath for her baby” ….

…. Because teens increasingly have more friends on MySpace than they do in real life, it’s no wonder they are searching for something more meaningful, Ablow said.

In a world that is so technologically based, there will be predictable push-back from young people,” Ablow said. “They want to remind themselves that they are alive and human. One of the ways people do this is that they reproduce.

But Ablow’s outlook seems superficial. Kingsbury notes,

The past decade has been difficult for this mostly white, mostly blue-collar city (pop. 30,000). In Gloucester, perched on scenic Cape Ann, the economy has always depended on a strong fishing industry. But in recent years, such jobs have all but disappeared overseas, and with them much of the community’s wherewithal. “Families are broken,” says school superintendent Christopher Farmer. “Many of our young people are growing up directionless” ….

…. 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.”

Indeed, Kacia Lowe, a junior at Gloucester High, said, “No one’s offered them a better option.”

And that is an important point. While commentators wonder about celebrities and movies, and the Gloucester community wrangles with issues of sex education and birth control, the extremity of this pact begs more fundamental questions of psychology.

MySpace is not off the hook, per se. As American communities struggle through economic turbulence, and workers are putting in more hours than anyone else in the industrialized world, the ways in which people relate to one another are becoming more remote. For years, parents have been encouraged to spend more time with their children, and now as more and more communication takes place over increasingly sophisticated networks, communication between families and friends is growing more distant. Text messages, e-mail, online chat, and the social-networking phenomenon of having literally hundreds or thousands of “friends” all contribute to a redefinition of human relations in the modern world. Years will pass before the full effect of these changes are known, but a fundamental aspect of psychological health is one’s ability to foster and maintain social relationships. As these relationships are transformed, so, too, are their value and impact. The idea of a normal relationship is changing; the question arises whether human psychological needs and outcomes will adapt.

In that context, the implications of the Gloucester pact are striking. The suggestion that healthy relationships, be it between family members or friends, are becoming so sparse that these girls would pursue such extreme remedies seems a chilling social indictment. But it is also more plausible than media influence. And Ablow’s assertion, that the girls “want to remind themselves that they are alive and human” certainly touches on the point. It is a classic theme of popular culture over the years—from The Who’s Tommy (“See me, feel me, touch me, heal me”) and Queen’s “Somebody to Love” (“Each morning I get up I die a little”) to Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” (“I hurt myself today to see if I still feel; I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real”)—reiterating an eternal theme of the human condition. It is a sadness expressed by Rilke in his second letter to Kappus: “We are unutterably alone, essentially, especially in the things most intimate and important to us.”

Reactions have ranged from shock and confusion to condemnation, and this is predictable. But the deeper question should prevail: If this is what things have come to, what does it signify?

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