Suddenly teen pregnancy is cool?

For the first time in years, more kids are having kids—and not just in movies

CATHY GULLI January 28 2008

Suddenly teen pregnancy is cool?

For the first time in years, more kids are having kids—and not just in movies

CATHY GULLI January 28 2008

By Cathy Gulli * When Jamie Lynn Spears, the 16-year-old sister of Britney, announced that she was pregnant last month in Ok! the magazine sold a record two million copies and had to run a second printing of the issue to keep up with the demand.  How could a wealthy preteen idol with her own hit Nickelodeon show, and the good sister to her chaotic older kin, be just several months away from adolescent, out-of-wedlock motherhood? "I didn't believe it because Jamie Lynn's always been so conscientious.  She's never late for her curfew," lamented  Lynne Spears.  She got over the shock in a week, and then Jamie Lynn, ever conscientious, notified the press that she would be having, keeping, and raising the baby with her mama in Louisiana.  "I'm just trying to do the right thing," said the star of Zoey 101.

Only a few days earlier, the film Juno had been released to instant and unanimous applause from such diverse sources as The New Yorker, Christianity Today and Film Freak Central. Suddenly the heroine of a hit movie— a comedy no less—could be a smart, motivated, white, middle-class girl, just 16, who matter-of-factly chooses to have a baby and an open adoption rather than an abortion. No big deal.

Unplanned pregnancy is now a pop-culture staple. Movies like Knocked Up and Waitress, and celebrity moms including Nicole Richie and Jessica Alba, are part of a trend that’s sweeping teen culture along with it: American Idol star Fantasia Barrino became a mom at 17, and the last season of Degrassi: The Next Generation ended with Emma realizing she might be pregnant. “The media is awash in it,” says David Landry, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute in New York, a non-profit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health. Even Grey’s Anatomy had a teen pregnancy storyline last year, and just last week so did Gossip Girl.

“As an idea, teen pregnancy is more socially accepted,” says Andrea O’Reilly, a women’s studies professor at York University in Toronto, and director of the Association for Research on Mothering Evidence of a less outraged reaction was best summarized by Hollywood’s most sought-after paparazzi muse, Lindsay Lohan: “Why does everyone think it’s such a big deal?” she replied when asked what she thought of Jamie Lynn’s situation.

Then came the statistical data confirming that something—something real—was happening: in 2006, for the first time in 15 years, the teen birth rate in America actually increased, said a report by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, in England, the number of pregnancies among females under age 18 also rose in 2005—to the highest point since 1998, according to the U.K.’s Department for Children, Schools and Families.

So far, the numbers aren’t rising in Canada, but our statistics are a couple of years old—from 2005.

Some experts say that when data does become available, we’ll see the same rise as our neighbours. “Overall trends for these three countries tend to mirror each other,” says Alex McKay, research coordinator of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. “If we’re seeing an increase in the teen birth rate in the U.S. and the U.K.,” he continues, “it is quite likely we may see the same thing occur in Canada.”

In an era when not getting pregnant should be easy, explanations for the jump in births among teens are speculative, if not elusive. Data on abortion rates or contraception use are outdated, so there’s little way of knowing for sure how much of the increase is due to a rise in unprotected sex or a possible decline in abortion rates. Some experts say it’s just a blip, a statistical aberration we’ll see corrected next year. Others believe the problem is institutional, that ineffective abstinence-only programs are to blame in the U.S. Or that we may have simply maxed out how much teen pregnancy can be prevented. “Whenever you try to improve things it’s easiest in the beginning,” says Bill Albert, deputy director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, based in Washington.

Those who see the signs of something more profound offer a range of explanations: a celebrity culture that downplays the hard work of motherhood; ever-changing family structures that normalize non-traditional arrangements; children who live at home longer than ever with parental support and aren’t expected, if they have kids of their own, to marry the father.

Invariably though, it seems teen pregnancy has become more accepted. A Denver high school is considering implementing a four-week maternity leave for students so they can recover and get used to the baby without penalties for missing class. In Canada, there is a recognition that teen moms should receive more help too: “Schools try to offer flexibility to young mothers,” says Marcia Powers-Dunlop, chief of social work with the Toronto District School Board’s northwest region. Consequently, many girls don’t drop out, she’s observed, “because there isn’t the stigma that there once was.” Jamie Lynn, for her part, was photographed recently toting a GED study book to get her high-school equivalency degree.

“There’s a redefining of motherhood,” says O’Reilly. “Teen moms are saying, why can’t I be a mother now?” She believes that as older women are gaining acceptance as new mothers, adolescent girls are claiming their maternal rights too. “Before, the time of motherhood was so restricted. Now it’s okay at 48. So why not at 18?” The feminist motherhood movement, as O’Reilly refers to the growing show of support for moms of all ages, has people questioning societal expectations about when is the right time to have children. “It’s part of a larger revisioning of motherhood: queer mothers, old mothers, young mothers. That wasn’t possible 20 years ago."

Suffice to say, the rising American teen birth rate in 2006 is something of an eye-opener. Between 1991 and 2005, the United States saw a 34 per cent decrease in the birth rate among those aged 15 to 19. But in 2006, that relatively steady decline was reversed. Suddenly, among 15- to 17-year-olds, the rate was up three per cent to 22 babies per 1,000 females, and 18- and 19-year-olds jumped four per cent to 73 births for every 1,000. “That took us by surprise,” admits Stephanie J. Ventura, head of the reproductive statistics branch at NCHS. And the rise was spread over almost every ethnic group except for Asians; births among black, native, Hispanic and white teenagers rose. While no specific data was collected on the income of teen mothers, Albert says that with three in 10 girls getting pregnant by age 20, “you realize this is not [just] ‘poor folk.’ The problem is spread wide.”

In England and Wales, the birth rate per 1,000 females under age 20 rose to 45.5 in 2006 compared to 44.8 the year before. Not a huge leap, but it’s already one of the highest rates in the developed world. The United Nations’ last comprehensive tally of G8 countries, from 2004, showed the U.K. has the third-highest teen birth rate, with 26.8 births per 1,000, slightly lower than Russia (28.2) and well above Japan (5-6), France (78), Italy (6.7) and Germany (11). The U.S. soars above them all, at 41.8 per 1,000 females.

Canada ranks exactly in the middle, with a teen birth rate of 13.4 per 1,000 as of 2005 (or 14.5 in 2003, as stated in the UN report), but that’s still down 45 per cent over the last decade. Domestically, we’ve come a long way. In 1995, teens aged 15 to 19 had 24.3 births per 1,000. And among the under-15 age group, the number of births per 1,000 plummeted nearly 60 per cent between 1995 and 2004 (Teen births, of course, are not the same thing as teen pregnancies, which include births and abortions and therefore capture the broader picture of how many adolescents are actually dealing with pregnancy, one way or another. Like birth rates, pregnancy rates also showed declines through the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada, but the latest numbers are between two and five years old.)

What no one knows in Canada, for now, is what’s been happening in the last couple of years. McKay suggests Canada should consider rises in other countries as foreshadowing of what could be happening here. “Although there are profound differences between Canada and the United States,” he says, “both countries have seen a persistent long-term decline in teen pregnancy rates over the last quarter-century.” That both our southern neighbour and England have seen reversals means ‘there’s a fairly big probability we will see the same,” he continues. Adds David Quist, executive director of the Ottawa-based Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, an arm of Focus on the Family: “Often Canada follows the U.S. in trends like this.”

And the U.S., before seeing the jump in its teen birth rate in 2006, first witnessed a flattening out. “The rate of decline had slowed in the last few years,” explains Ventura, “so maybe that was an early indication that it was about to reverse.” Similarly, England’s birth rate has barely budged since 2000.

In Canada, the declining teen birth rate has also levelled off—from 14.9 births per 1,000 in 2002 to 13.6 in 2004 to 13.4 births one year later.

So what if this isn’t a blip? It could be that teens are just following what is really a nationwide trend in the U.S. Across all ages (from 15 to 44) the birth rate is up, according to the NCHS. Between 2005 and 2006, more women had babies than had since 1961—in excess of 4.2 million. And the 2006 fertility rate was the highest it had been since 1971. Explanations for the overall increase are as elusive as for the rising teen birth rate.

“The short answer is none of us really know why the rates went up,” says Albert. For teens, many blame the rise on abstinence-only programs, which have bloomed in the U.S. since 1996 with more than $1 billion in federal funding. Critics say they deny teens of information that could help them make safer decisions when they do have sex. “There is precious little evidence to suggest that abstinence-only interventions work,” says Albert. But he’s reluctant to put much stock in arguments for or against abstinence-only, since these programs existed during the major declines between 1996 and 2005. 

In Canada, the federal government has assembled guidelines for sex education, but programs differ by school board, school and classroom, says McKay. He believes programs are not uniform enough across the country to make a consistent contribution to the health of Canadian youth. “The extent and quality of sex education varies from excellent to non-existent. And unfortunately, the non-existent is more common,” he says.

Poor access to emergency contraception and abortion also may explain the increase in teen births. “There are more limits now on abortions—[longer] waiting periods, fewer abortion providers,” says Landry. As well, they often require travel, parental permission, and large fees. Plus, he adds, teens may be more reluctant to terminate because it has become “such a politicized, divisive issue.” Meanwhile, pharmacies can sell the morning after pill only to females 18 or older; younger girls need a doctor’s note, a problem since the medication must be administered within 72 hours of having sex.

The situation isn’t much better in Canada. The morning-after pill, while readily available, requires a consultation with a pharmacist, which costs up to $45 plus the drug fee. And according to a 2007 report by the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health, less than one in six hospitals provided abortions in 2006, and many provinces do not have full health insurance coverage for terminations done in clinics.

Without the option to terminate a pregnancy, we’ll see a rise in births, says O’Reilly.

Or it could be that teen birth rates have simply gone as low as they can. After all, says Landry, the vast majority of adolescents have sex: “In some ways, it’s amazing that we have had this long a run in the decline in birth rates.” After several years of getting the message about teen pregnancy out to the most receptive adolescents, “it may be that we’re down to very difficult cases,” says Albert.

It doesn’t seem to be the case that teens generally are less sexually prudent than earlier generations. The age of first sexual experience hasn’t gotten any younger—17 in the U.S., and 16.5 in Canada. The use of condoms and hormonal birth controls had increased as of 2002 in the States, and in Canada, contraception use has risen—nearly 87 per cent of teens have safe sex. (This further suggests that abstinence-only programs may not work.) And adolescents here aren’t having any more sex than earlier generations either. “In some ways, [teens] tend to be more conservative now than they were in the past,” says McKay.

During the 1960s and ’70s, sex was a rite of passage equated with youthful rebellion and liberation, he surmises. Today, many “teens have sex for reasons associated with pleasure, relationships and exploration. It’s done in a different context.”

The fact that "babies!” tops the list of news categories at suggests that pregnancy-celebrity, teen, unplanned, out-of-wedlock, whatever—has moved into a new realm of acceptance. “It’s no longer a scary word,” says Ottawa-based sex therapist Sue McGarvie. “It’s been normalized.” Entertainment tabloids, which have long featured style-watch lists, have turned their attention to the latest accessory in Hollywood—protruding bellies. And teens, heavy consumers of such media, are getting the message that “having a baby is the new handbag,” says Nicole Fischer, 17, who lives in Calgary and just gave birth to her son Cristian five months ago.

“Popular culture is showing a more positive representation of young mothers,” says O’Reilly. Today, having an unexpected baby can be more of an image-enhancer than a shameful faux pas. It’s part of a larger trend to make motherhood chic and happening, she says: “If you’re 18, you want a baby on your hip, a miniskirt, and a guitar on your back.” In many ways, celebrities have helped prove that motherhood isn’t “the end of coolness or sexiness for women, or the end of the line,” says Ariel Gore, a Portland, Ore.-based blogger and author of Breeder: Real-Life Stories from the New Generation of Mothers, among other books.

Trite as it may sound, Albert says social norms are shaped by star culture. “The Britneys of this world and the Angelina Jolies may have an effect. To ignore it would be Pollyannaish.” Of course, to say it’s all positive would also be wrong, says O’Reilly. “The glamour and romance quickly goes—when you’re having morning sickness [or] in childbirth for two days. That whole [Hollywood mom] culture worries me,” she continues, “because that’s not how motherhood is.”

However misguided, Dunlop-Powers says that some teens “no longer think there’s a big deal” about having sex—and so, presumably, getting pregnant. As someone in daily contact with adolescents, she says that premarital sex now is a way of life. It is not unusual for her to get calls about 12- and 13-year-olds who are expecting babies. “That would have been unheard of a while ago,” she says. “And yet it’s no longer cause for panic.”

Celebs aside, rising teen birth rates may also have to do with home life, Powers-Dunlop adds, where casual sex may be observed among single parents. “There’s a lot of families separating and divorcing, and parents having new partners but not getting married. There’s a message that this is a natural,” she explains. “It’s no longer love then sex.” In fact, the ever-more diverse family structures happening today—gay parents, multi-faith and race marriages, open relationships, step- and half-siblings, and single-parent adoption or in vitro fertilization—may relieve some of the old shock of teen parenthood.

And now that more adult children live at home with their folks for longer—60 per cent of Canadians aged 20 to 24 did last year—teens may feel they’ll have more support in raising their child, just like Jamie Lynn Spears is counting on her mother’s help. (Fischer, meanwhile, is living with the family of her boyfriend, who fathered the baby.)

One trend observed by Pauline Paterson, director of the YWCA’s girls and family programs in Scarborough, Ont., is a phenomenon called “multi-daddying.” Teen moms are actually having more than one baby with various fathers as a way of forming bonds with new men in their lives—and it’s yet another way that adolescents are putting their stamp on parenthood and establishing new family models.

Of course, few people would say they encourage adolescent motherhood. Actress Eva Mendes, during the launch of her anti-fur PETA ads, said of unplanned births, “It’s an epidemic and I don’t want to catch it!” Lily Allen, the 22-year-old singer, admonished teen pregnancy in Marie Claire. Soon after, she announced that she was surprised but “thrilled” to be expecting a child too.

The main difference these days is that the severe shame and stigmatization teens used to face when they got pregnant has lessened— if only slightly, says Kayla Clark, 18, who got pregnant despite using two forms of birth control. She gave birth to son William almost two years ago. That change is partly because parents, teachers and health care workers are realizing that much worse things can befall an adolescent. “Now parents worry about serious drugs, HIV or AIDS,” says O’Reilly, not to mention gang violence. In Juno, for example, the parents heaved a huge sigh of relief when the big news their daughter had come to confess turned out to be pregnancy— they were terrified she had been expelled or was addicted to drugs.

There’s also recognition that offering support to pregnant teens doesn’t necessarily have to mean it’s being encouraged. “Taking away the stigma isn’t going to cause a bunch of young women to get pregnant,” says Gore. She suggests the rising birth rate may be a backlash to the intense campaigns against teen pregnancy throughout the last decade--adolescents may be rebelling against the idea that they can’t be parents. Gore also believes that teens may be more open to motherhood after witnessing their own moms suffer health problems or constant fatigue because they put off having kids until later in life. “I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with teen parenting,” Gore says. Her beef is with the need for more social services to help adolescent mothers cope.

There are some indications support is taking priority. Louise Dean Centre in Calgary is one of only a few schools in Canada that cater exclusively to pregnant teens and young mothers aged 14 to 20. “They feel more comfortable that [motherhood] hasn’t ended their life,” says teacher Alison Orpe. “It’s just taken it in a different direction.” And groups for adolescent moms, like the one run by Scarborough’s YWCA, provide a dinner and community support twice a week for teens and their babies. The group is constantly at maximum capacity with 150 attending.

Fischer, who says she was “the perfect child” of her family, and got pregnant after having sex for the first time, is among the students at Louise Dean. She has big plans to become a legal assistant. “My grades are up and I know I’m going to college,” she says. “I know there is a way out. But you have to be responsible enough to make the choices.”

Increasingly, teens are proving that they can pull off adolescence and motherhood at once. “There are some huge pregnancy success stories, McGarvie says. “It’s not necessarily all bad.” Many young mothers are finding “motivation, tenacity and purpose” in their new role, continues O’Reilly, and this propels them to stay in school so they can later find work and establish a good life for their growing family. As much as we may not like to admit it, adds McKay, “there are many young women who are perfectly capable of bearing a child in their late teens and leading healthy and productive lives for themselves and providing a good upbringing for their children.”

Part of this empowerment is tied up in the fact that unplanned pregnancy no longer automatically means that girls must have a secret abortion or put their baby up for closed adoption—as Juno shows. Nor do they automatically have to marry the father of their baby. McKay says we are undergoing a profound transformation in the control women are exhibiting over their reproductive fate. Clark lives on her own with the baby in subsidized housing and will begin studying exercise science at the University of Lethbridge in September. She says that while she debated both termination and open adoption, she couldn’t bear giving up her claim to motherhood. “I couldn’t be part of life knowing that I [wouldn’t be] a mom anymore,” she says.

“It’s a rescripting of what we know as a teen mom,” says O’Reilly. Historically, they were demonized, or worse: they were known as "the disappeared,” she says. “You were shipped off to Aunt Martha’s” for an abortion or to put the baby up for adoption. Now, “there’s more cultural permission to be a young mother than 10 or 20 years ago,” believes O’Reilly. “It’s not a death sentence.” 

—With files from Kate Lunau, Ken MacQueen and Julia McKinnell