Teen pregnancies are up. Can on-campus student-parent services be far behind?
’Tis the season of surprise pregnancies. First Keisha Castle-Hughes. Then Knocked Up. Then Juno, and Bella. Then there was the blessed-event bulletin from train-wreck-in-training Jamie-Lynn Spears. It was only a matter of time before wholesome teen idol Hannah Montana herself, Miley Cyrus, was rumored to be pregnant. (A number of Facebook groups are devoted to the debate. Cyrus denies being with child.)
Us Weekly, meet the CDC: for the first time since 1991, according to Center for Disease Control statistics, teen pregnancy is on the rise. In the United States, approximately 750,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant every year. Eighty-two percent of these pregnancies are unplanned; 29 percent result in abortion. Massachusetts, for its part, has the third-lowest teen birth-rate of any state. Meanwhile, here, 43 percent of teen pregnancies are aborted.
It’s not shocking that these numbers don’t specifically address college students. Traditionally, public-health stats focus on the plights of high-risk, underprivileged, uneducated women. But this is changing. Currently in committee, the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Pregnant and Parenting Student Services Act of 2007 would establish a pilot program that, through grants, would encourage eligible higher-education institutions to operate pregnant and parenting student-services offices for affected co-eds.
Meanwhile, the price of birth control continues to spike. According to the American College Health Association, about 38 percent of female college students use oral contraceptives. But discounted birth-control pills that once cost between $5 and $10 are now going for as much as $50. Why? As Slate recently reported, when lawmakers passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, they overlooked college health centers on a list of providers eligible for pharmaceutical discounts. And, sadly, there’s no such thing as a morning-after pill when it comes to political screw-ups.
So with pregnancy coming to the mainstream, I decided to do a little sleuthing. Surely some women on college campuses who do get pregnant, whether they planned to or not, might actually want to keep their babies. What happens on the leafy campuses of Boston’s elite institutions of higher learning? Does Patagonia make maternity wear?
My first stop, just for some perspective, was Boston College. As a Jesuit school, the Eagles push for family values. At BC, pro is used more often in the context of football; choice, not so much. Of course, this cooks up its own issues: as the BC student newspaper The Heights reported this past spring, the Women’s Health Initiative, a group of pro-choice campus activists, met secretly, off-campus, to escape administration scrutiny. The group is gaining momentum, but they’re still a vocal minority at conservative BC.
Sean Mascali, a senior at Harvard, is currently the head of Students for Life, an on-campus advocacy group that liaises with WHI. “BC has a hard time doing things. They’re not able to get money to buy condoms; there’s a lot of problems. The type of school that you attend has a lot to do with the type of resources you have.”
At Harvard, says Mascali, “Students know they’re very lucky to have resources in the surrounding area, where if you do have an issue, there are places you can go to for unbiased advice. And depending on what decision you might reach, you do have options.” (It should be noted that undergraduate and graduate students at Harvard pay a mandatory student-health-services fee, which is used to provide funding for elective student abortions. However, students who object to abortions on moral grounds receive a refund of a portion of the fee.)
Ah yes, for Harvard students, the world is a juicy little oyster. But does that oyster really include . . . pregnancy? Surely it’s not easy to pull an all-nighter with a baby Einstein hanging from your neck.
Enter the Pregnancy and Parenting Resource Coalition. Spearheaded by Mary Collins, a Harvard senior, the group devotes itself to making the local Ivy League more hospitable to pregnant and mothering students. “At a place like Harvard, no one wants to be vulnerable, and [pregnancy] is a very public sign of vulnerability. . . . Everyone’s very goal-driven, career-oriented, and ambitious. A lot of people would view a child as a big setback,” she concedes. But if Harvard students can control their fate in every other way, why not when it comes to kids? After all, even smarties have sex.
“Most students on campus are sexually active,” says Collins. “And so it's a natural progression. Someone is going to get pregnant. But some students on campus feel like if you screw up, you should suffer the consequences, and the campus is sort of closed off to choice.”
University Health Services, she says, offers plenty of resources for prevention, but falls short when it comes to offering next steps for women (and men) who wish to become parents. “We’re pushing the administration to agree to certain things. We want people to be able to choose the other choice, not abortion, without feeling emotionally and psychologically burdened,” she says of her Coalition colleagues, who include members of Students for Choice.