There was something sweetly naïve about the shock elicited by news out of Gloucester, Massachusetts that a group of 17 girls, no older than 16, may have had a pact to get pregnant together. But what was, perhaps, most remarkable about the story was just how completely it explodes two of the most widely-purveyed social myths about young women and pregnancy.
Myth 1: Girls wouldn’t get pregnant if they just had access to birth control, and knew how to use it.
In the reporting on the Gloucester story, the girls’ supposed lack of access to birth control pills was put front and center. In fact, immediately after describing the “pregnancy pact” between the young girls, TIME magazine went on to note that Gloucester (described as a “fiercely Catholic enclave”) “isn't sure it wants to provide easier access to birth control.” The piece states that
Currently Gloucester teens must travel about 20 miles (30 km) to reach the nearest women's health clinic; younger girls have to get a ride or take the train and walk. But the notion of a school handing out birth control pills has met with hostility.
Of course, all of this conveniently overlooks the fact that the young women were trying to get pregnant on purpose, and therefore the availability of birth control – or the lack thereof – is completely irrelevant.
But the emphasis on access to birth control – at school and elsewhere – was hardly surprising. In publicizing my book, Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Damages Girls (and America, Too!), those who were most hostile to the book’s message frequently resorted to a tangential argument about whether schools should teach young people about contraception and offer it at school. In this formulation, either schools teach “abstinence” or else they provide “comprehensive sex education,” often including detailed instructions about how to use contraceptives and the distribution of birth control on campus.
The dichotomy is a false one, of course. It’s perfectly possible to inform young people about where babies come from, how their bodies work, and the mechanics of contraception without urging them to put condoms on bananas in class, offering birth control pills at school, or otherwise sending the message that sexual activity on their parts is appropriate, normal – even expected.
What’s more, in an age when condoms and contraceptive foam are displayed “out front” in drug stores and the internet provides access to all kinds of explicit information, it’s unlikely that any girl becomes pregnant because she is unaware of the existence of birth control, ignorant about how it works, or absolutely incapable of obtaining it. Certainly, it would be wonderful if the difficulties posed by teen pregnancy were solvable simply through “better education” and “access” to birth control; unfortunately, it’s wishful thinking – and a convenient way to dodge the tougher, underlying issue.
Myth 2: Girls wouldn’t get pregnant if they weren’t poor and “hopeless.”
It’s wonderful, and important, that girls now have a range of life choices open to them that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago. But that very fact puts the lie to the idea that girls are becoming pregnant in large part because, as the TIME piece put it, there are no “better options” in a “city so uncertain of its future.”
In the days when girls were encouraged to aspire only to a single (though important) life path – becoming a wife and mother – there was not the epidemic of illegitimacy that America encounters today. “Pregnancy pacts” among unwed young mothers were unthinkable even during periods of grinding hardship like the Great Depression. Surely if poverty and hopelessness were the real reasons for the problem, teen pregnancy would have fallen -- not risen -- over the years, as America’s standard of living has sharply improved and a whole new range of life options have become available to women.
Ultimately, the problem underlying teen pregnancy isn't simply a practical one, solvable by access to or knowledge of contraceptives. Nor is it strictly a socio-economic one that can be remedied through greater income redistribution and more material possessions. It is, primarily, an ethical, moral and spiritual problem.
Addressing the challenge of teen pregnancy begins with the recognition that good sexual decision making doesn’t occur in a vacuum – that sexual integrity is just one more component of good character overall. Improving it requires a commitment to two difficult tasks: Reining in a culture that too often encourages and celebrates teen sexuality – and finding a way to fill the holes in the souls of the young girls who are having sex (and reproducing) as part of a pitiable and painful search for unconditional love.