As goes Gloucester?

Debating the ‘pregnancy pact’ will not make a surge in teenage motherhood   disappear
By EDITORIAL  |  June 25, 2008

Waves of chatter wash over the city of Gloucester, where 17 high-school students are pregnant. But for all the yapping in print, online, and over the airwaves, there’s little clarity — and even less wisdom — to be found.

The rip tide of publicity that hit the blue-collar fishing port comes from the disturbing story in Time magazine that approximately half of the now-pregnant girls made a pact to have children and raise them together, giving unintended meaning to the concept “it takes a village.”

The idea that there was a “pact” was clearly attributed to high-school principal Joseph Sullivan. He, it appears, has been muzzled by local authorities and is now on vacation, unavailable for follow-up.

Into the breach steps Gloucester mayor Carolyn Kirk, a political newcomer with a lot of energy and a can-do style that helped her win office. Kirk may have succeeded in raising questions about the existence of a pact. She has not, however, been able to alter the underlying reality that at least some of the girls — pact or no pact, widespread or smaller than suggested — wanted to get pregnant. “Pinkies up” is not an appropriate strategy in this situation.

Conservatives should take note of the fact that Gloucester has, well, a piss-poor sex-education program. Its opposition to making birth control available — some fear it might promote sexual license — seems asinine given the number of pregnant girls at Gloucester High, not to mention the number who already walk the halls with baby strollers. Unwanted pregnancy is not the only issue. There are also sexually transmitted diseases to consider, and the possibility of HIV infection. By several measures, the Gloucester community is being dangerously irresponsible.

Liberals likewise should be chastened. The overall sex-education program may leave some wanting in Gloucester, but short of birth control, sex-oriented health-care services are available. The question of whether single, teenage girls who want to become pregnant can be dissuaded is a bit of a new frontier. The situation is more complicated than teaching the facts of life. Sociology trumps biology.

One of the factors making it difficult to understand what is going on in Gloucester is the age of the girls involved. Old enough to become pregnant, they are sufficiently young that news organizations are reluctant to report on them in detail. Privacy, of course, is a humane consideration. But it’s hard to imagine that the issue of parental consent isn’t also at play: old enough to get pregnant, but too young to be quoted in the papers without the okay of a parent.

This raises the intrusive question, “Where was mom?” And the uncomfortable question, “Was there even a dad?” Reading between the lines of the various news accounts, it seems clear that a significant number of the girls in question come from less-than-stable households mired in some degree of economic strain or distress.

Confronting issues raised by economic class is not something most Americans — or Massachusetts residents, for that matter — do with any degree of comfort. At a time when the gap between the rich and the poor, between the working and middle class, grows ever wider, this reticence is more than misplaced. It is destructive and counterproductive.

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