NEAL CONAN, host:
This week, Time Magazine published a story about 17 teenage girls at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts who, it said, got together to form a pregnancy pact. The story has since been disputed by families of the girls and by the mayor of Gloucester. The magazine says it stands by its reporting but it's raised a lot of discussion about planned teenage pregnancy.
The latest nation-wide statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that teen birth rate rose 3 percent from 2005 to 2006. Some people blame Hollywood's glamorization of teen and single mothers, the movie "Juno," for example. Others say there's too little sex education or that it's too hard to get contraception.
Today we talk about intended and unintended teen pregnancy. And we want to hear from those of you who've experienced pregnancy as a teenager. Was it planned? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And with us is Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.
Ms. BROWN (Director, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And at this point, we don't exactly know what happened at that high school in Gloucester. But what do you make of this story?
Ms. BROWN: Well, it's just set off a media storm. It's extraordinary to me. For people like me and other people who are intensely interested in this issue, we've known about schools with large numbers of pregnancies, and in fact, about intended pregnancies which, as you said, may or may not be true, for a long time. But I guess because there has been so much progress on teen pregnancies for almost 15 years, maybe we just all sort of had gotten complacent and maybe we thought that this problem wasn't as big and as powerful as it is, and this was a real wakeup call.
Whether there was a pact or not, this rate - there had been around four teen births in the previous years and we're up to 17. If my math's right, that's a quadrupling in one year. And so something happened, and it's a very serious and important event.
CONAN: And we think of - again, those of us who are well beyond our teen years, think of this as almost an entirely an unplanned problem. Nevertheless, there are planned teen pregnancies.
Ms. BROWN: That's right. And I think this story also reacquainted America with the concept and the reality that there are some teens, indeed, who intend to become pregnant. I have a few numbers for you. I don't want to sort of dork-out on you, but let's see if we can put it in context.
In 2004, if you look at all teenagers 15 to 19, the current estimate is that they had about 750,000 pregnancies. This is all teens. About 15 percent of those, by the young teen mothers themselves, I mean the pregnant teens, about 15 percent were intended. If my math's right, that's 100,000 intended pregnancies for all teens.
CONAN: And how do you know that? You ask the mothers?
Ms. BROWN: Well, there are a number of federal surveys that ask young women about their pregnancy experience and did you plan to become pregnant at the time? And again, for all teens it's about 15 percent. Now of course, these were high school students, so I think maybe it's more relevant to look at 15- to 17-year-olds, because that's what these girls were. And in that same year, 2004, we had about 250,000 pregnancies amongst those young teens, but about 11 percent of those were intended. Smaller number, about 27,000.
So we had 17 reported in Gloucester. That's about 17 of 27,000 pregnancies to young teens, 15 to 17, where the young women said, yes, at the time I became pregnant, I wanted to.
CONAN: And did they say why?
Ms. BROWN: Well, these surveys don't ask them that. But needless to say, there's been an enormous amount of speculation about it. There are many, many reasons. Some of them will be living in environments where a large number of their friends and sisters and so forth have had babies as teenagers. Their mother may have been a teen mother herself.
They will sometimes talk about their hope that it would lead to a more stable relationship with a boyfriend, or in some cases a young man. And we know that, of course, is invariably not truth.
They will sometimes talk about their knowledge or absence of knowledge about birth control, failure to get contraceptives. But I think the most important thing to understand is a lot of them will simply say, you know, I just kind of wasn't really thinking about it too clearly. Yeah, I wanted to, but it's not like an adult saying, I'm intending to this, where there's been a lot of thought and a lot of sort of weighing, of the - in this case, very serious consequences. So even though they may say it's intended, I'm not sure that means it's like a 32-year-old intending.
And one more very important point. Even the young women who say they became pregnant and they did not plan to, the 85 percent overall or for the younger ones, almost 90 percent, actually, I think a lot of them are really ambivalent. They really will often say, I just wasn't thinking about it. It kind of happened. I mean, I wasn't planning it but on the other hand, maybe it would be OK. And there is a kind of a lot of sort of foggy thinking in the middle that it's neither clearly planned nor clearly unplanned, and what we know is that unless you're really dedicated to the notion of not getting pregnant, life happens.
CONAN: Yeah. And another question that I guess a lot of people have, is the media to blame? Is Hollywood responsible for this?
Ms. BROWN: Well, you know, with all this firestorm after Gloucester, there have been four hypotheses that people tend to raise. Media is absolutely one of them, particularly Jamie Lynn Spears, who just, at the age of 17, just had a birth. The same day that Time broke the story, so it was like a perfect storm.
People wonder about the media and they certainly wonder about presence or absence of sex education in school and what kind it was and how good it was and what they said. And they ask about were contraceptives available and they ask about economic influences. Gloucester, like many communities in America, has a lot of economic struggles.
So media was certainly one thing people asked about but not the only thing. I think it's clear that media does have an influence. Teenagers spend more time now engaged with media online, movies, TV and so forth than they do in school in a given year. So the notion that media would have no influence seems not reasonable, but I don't think we should see it as sort of a linear straight shot. You know, you got to "Juno," or you go to such and such a movie and you see such and such a TV show and you go, oh, OK, I'm going to do that, you know, direct cause and effect.
Rather, I think media sort of just sets the tone. It sort of shows what's cool, what's kind of OK. Maybe, in some instances, maybe a little bit of glitz, a little bit of sparkle in Hollywood and of course, the adults have to say, you know, you don't live in Hollywood. You are not going to get pregnant in Hollywood and you are not going to have a baby in Hollywood. You live in, you know, rural Indiana, Newark or whereever you are living. And those experiences are irrelevant to you in your education and your future.
CONAN: We're talking about intentional and unintentional teenage pregnancies with Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. If you'd like to join us, if you had this experience as a teenager, give us a call, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's begin with Bill, and Bill is on the line from Sacramento.
BILL (Caller): Hello, and thanks for having me.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead, please.
BILL: I - well, not me personally, but my girlfriend at the time became pregnant when we both were teenagers. I'm 39 now, and I was only 17 at the time. She was only 14 at the time. It certainly changed my life in a lot of ways. Things didn't turn out exactly the way I had intended or foresaw that they would way back when.
Now I've had a pretty good life and I really would never exchange the experiences I had as basically growing up while watching my son grow up at the same time. But it was really hard, and I would say to any teens who have any sense of self, just take the necessary precautions, think for just a moment because your life may not turn out exactly the way you had thought or foreseen.
CONAN: And back then, was the pregnancy planned? Did you intend to get pregnant?
BILL: I certainly did not. But then again, I didn't really take the necessary precautions to prevent such thing from happening. There was a question for a number of years as whether or not she had intentionally gotten pregnant, despite whatever minimal efforts we took to not do so, but as it turns out, that was just rumors and speculation. However, it turned out such that it did that, you know, I was a child raising a child by myself. Been a single parent for actually 19 of those 20 years.
CONAN: So it did not make the couple, you and your girlfriend, closer together?
BILL: In fact, we were separated before he was born. And he came to live with me for the remainder of his life after he was about five months old. So I think I've had - I don't know, sort of a unique experience with regard to a single father situation where I just basically took the reins. She wasn't able to. And that's another thing. What kid really is able to encompass something that is such an enormity like that? I personally don't know.
CONAN: And he is now older now than you were then?
BILL: Indeed. He's 20. He's married. He's in the army and he's in Germany right now, actually. He turned out to be, despite all of our difficulties with him growing up, a wonderful person. He's an amazing young man, and I wouldn't - really wouldn't undo it for anything except to maybe wait a little while longer.
Ms. BROWN: And you know, that's really a wonderful story in many ways. It sort of sounds like it had a tough beginning, but many teen parents will say, people who were teens at the time, that they did their very, very best, and many of them struggle heroically. The outcomes aren't always quite as good as yours and it's always wonderful to hear happy stories. And what we often say is, that's wonderful. For many people, it's a much tougher road ahoe(ph). But everybody agrees that waiting a little bit would have been better.
Almost every teen parent will say two things. I adore my child - and we are so glad they do. Children need deep amounts of love and support - but almost invariably they'll say, I wish I had waited. And they may not be clear about exactly how old they would have been. Some of them would say married, whatever, but people understand that babies need adult parents. And increasingly, in this very tough economy, the prime value of education has never been greater. It is essential that people not only graduate from high school now but actually get training beyond that or their chances of staying out of poverty are minimal. It's a very tough time now to get an education interrupted.
BILL: In fact, I have a few friends who were in the same situation a little bit later in life and some of them are really struggling, even much more so than I did, and there are two parents in the household. I would say that most young people are just not prepared for that kind of thing.
CONAN: Bill, thanks for the call. We appreciate it.
BILL: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. We are talking with Sarah Brown about planned and unplanned teenage pregnancy. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Karen's on the line and Karen's calling us from South Carolina. Karen, are you there?
KAREN (Caller): Yes, I am.
CONAN: Go ahead, you're on the air, please.
KAREN: Yes. I was 17 when I had my daughter. I got pregnant to get out of the house at the time, and it definitely worked and I had three children by the time I was 21.
CONAN: And how did that work out for you?
KAREN: Well, it - I made it work. Looking back now, I wish I had been a little older when I had my children, but in some ways it was great, you know?
KAREN: It would have been nice if I had been a little more mature.
CONAN: But again, to get out of the house? Obviously, the situation there was uncomfortable.
KAREN: Yes, very. I had an alcoholic father and I had to get out of my house or it's - I had to.
CONAN: And when you say, it worked? Your parents kicked you out?
KAREN: Well, yes, they did. Once they found out I was pregnant they didn't want me in the house anymore, and I got married like six months later, me and the father of the baby, and we were married for 14 years.
CONAN: Well, that's great, Karen. Sarah?
Ms. BROWN: You know, this comment about the parents and that being sort of a cause and part of the intendedness is a critical point, and I think the role of parents in teen pregnancy, whether intended or not, is not adequately discussed in all this media storm about Gloucester. I think we were in day five after the story before anybody said, well, what was the family situation like for these girls? What had the parents said, not said, done, not done that might have led in part to this - to these pregnancies?
And you know, it's interesting. People somehow always want to say the school was at fault or it should have done this or - I don't know, this teacher should have done that or some program, and all those are important issues. I'm not saying they are not.
But I've been struck by how little attention in both intended pregnancies and unintended for teens, how little intention has been given to their immediate environment which, after all, has been with them from the day they were born.
CONAN: Yeah, their parents and their family.
MS. BROWN: What were they told? What were the models around them, the relationships and so forth, the values, the information?
CONAN: Karen, thanks very much.
KAREN: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's get Tristen(ph)on the line and Tristen is with us from Bellville, Illinois. Tristen?
TRISTEN (Caller): Hi, yeah, I'm actually - I'm calling because people that I do know in high school that are getting pregnant and stuff and I've noticed in Illinois they have mandatory - you have to take a health program, but they really don't talk about, like, contraception or anything. They kind of briefly just go over everything in the...
CONAN: You talk a lot about biology but not necessarily a lot of practical issues?
CONAN: And you are in high school now, Tristen?
TRISTEN: Yes, I am.
CONAN: And why is it, do you think, that girls are getting pregnant? Are they doing it on purpose?
TRISTEN: I think that some girls are, just to - they might believe that they are going to have this beautiful family with their boyfriend, and knowing my friends and stuff, and I've talked to - we're all guys and we kind of just talk about stuff. They're scared of it. They're afraid and so it's quite disconcerting...
TRISTEN: That some girls would think that if they get pregnant then the boyfriend would stay with them when it's most likely the opposite of that.
CONAN: The wishful thinking. Sarah?
Ms. BROWN: You know, it really is true. We hear this a lot. It's not that these young women are wrong. It's not some character defect. It's that they really - they want very much to be in a relationship, and they think that because they are young that this might be one way to cement it.
So back to the parents, one of the things that parents need to be saying over many years, and schools, too, to support them, is that babies to teenagers do not lead, or rarely lead, to sort of the white picket fence and the fantasy future, which is why, again, the Hollywood thing is so confusing.
Parents need to say very clearly that babies need adult children. They need to say that getting pregnant and starting families is one of the most serious, to say nothing of expensive, things we do. And it has to be thought about and planned. It's a timing issue.
Now the sex education is also important. I don't think we should in any way ignore that. There are a number of curricula that have been shown to help young people delay sex, to use contraception if they are sexually active and to avoid teen pregnancy. And communities have now several curricula that have good research behind them that they work and all of us will always encourage schools to use the best programs possible. But schools can only back up a larger community of parents and a supportive environment. They can't do it alone.
CONAN: Tristen, thanks very much.
TRISTEN: Oh, and one more thing...
CONAN: I'm afraid we're out of time, Tristen. That's all we've got. I apologize for that, and Sarah Brown, thank you for your time.
Ms. BROWN: Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Tomorrow Joe Palca will be here with Science Friday. We'll talk to you again on Monday. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
From Jamie Lynn Spears to pregnancy pacts and nationwide stats showing the teen birthrate rising, the director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy talks about teen pregnancy.
This week, Time magazine published a story about 17 teenage girls at Gloucester High School in Massachusetts who, it said, got together to form a "pregnancy pact." The story has since been disputed by families of the girls and by the mayor, but it's raised a lot of discussion about planned teenage pregnancy.
Some people blame Hollywood's glamorization of teen and single mothers. Others say there's too little sex education or that it's too hard to get contraception. Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, talks about intended and unintended teen pregnancy.