Last month saw a flurry of interest in the reproductive goings-on in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Time magazine reported a spike in teen pregnancies at Gloucester High Schoolfrom 3 or 4 last year to 17 this year (see June 18, 2008, “Pregnancy Boom at Gloucester High”). That’s what social scientists call a statistically significant variation. But the real sex appeal of the story came from the high school principal, Dr. Joseph Sullivan. He explained the sudden rise as the result of a “pregnancy pact” among a group of girls who pledged to have babies and raise them together.
Follow-up stories are now striking a more skeptical stance. Eager to defend the moral reputation of her fair city, Gloucester mayor Carolyn Kirk denies that there is any evidence of a “pregnancy pact,” and the principal can’t quite remember when and from whom he heard about the supposed covenant of fertility. The girls want (thankfully) to remain anonymous. There will doubtless be more twists and turns in this story.
Uncertainties aside, though, it seems pretty clear that some teenage girls in Gloucester wanted to get pregnant, talked about it with their friends, and succeeded in conceiving. The school offers free pregnancy testing, and the school nurse reported girls celebrating when the tests came back positive. So, official pact or not, there has been an upsurge in Gloucester of something that our oh-so-inclusive age finds alien and threatening: planned teen pregnancies.
One predictable reaction has focused on sex education, or more accurately the bemoaned lack thereof. If only the students had better information about the real consequences of sexual intercourse! If only the school health clinic were permitted to dispense birth control pills! If only Gloucester didn’t suffer from the repressive mentality of a majority Catholic culture!
Hello. We’re talking about girls who wanted to get pregnant. Is it so difficult to notice that girls who want to get pregnant are not victims of supposedly prudish culture that won’t teach children the truth about sex and give them condoms?
Another reaction is less easily dismissed: It’s not about sex but parenting. If only these girls knew the extraordinary difficulties of raising a child, then they never would have done such a silly thing! So the way to prevent teen pregnancies is to dramatize the challenges of motherhood, especially single motherhood.
When I read a pundit who expressed this sentiment, I had to chuckle. Would I have fathered children if I had been fully informed? As I’m writing checks for college tuition, I’m not so sure. But I know myself well enough to know that I’m like most folks. Because we’re captive to our own selfishness, we do a notorious bad job reasoning out what makes us happy. I’m sure this fact about human nature has not escaped the notice of people in Gloucester, including teenage girls, which is why a Miss Prudence class on the great difficulties involved in raising children would have much less effect than social workers imagine. Tell a selfish, directionless sixteen-year-old girl that a child will radically change her life, and you might find her saying, “Yeah, that’s what I want.”
“Yeah, that’s what I want.” Uniting nearly all the responses to this story has been the underlying assumption that no normal person would want to be a sixteen-year-old high school girl with a newborn. So the girls must be deluded, which is pretty much the standard analysis. Faced with hopeless situations, girls stuck in poverty and dysfunctional families get pregnant to give their lives meaning. A child offers them the promise of something new, something fresh, something bright with future possibilities unsullied by present realities. I can see all the head’s nodding, “Yes, yes, that’s the right explanation.”
But even as we nod, we pooh-pooh the promise of children as sheer fantasy. Maybe these credulous young girls think a newborn child brings hope, but we know better. A child born to an unwed teenage girl seems to have no future at all: the cycle of poverty, lack of resources, culture of low expectations, blah, blah, blah.
Actually, studies suggest that children of unwed teenage mothers prosper at pretty much the same rate as those born to unwed twenty-somethings, but I don’t want to argue the point by quoting research. What fascinates me instead is the glaring fact that the Bible is so much more sanguine about children than our conventional contemporary wisdomand so much more pessimistic about childlessness.
The Bible is clear about the sin of fornication, which, aside from expensive artificial technologies, is the way an unmarried female gets pregnant (and the man gets her pregnant). But the Bible is also clear (clearer, actually, if you think about the story of Tamar in Genesis 38) about the natural purpose of our sexual identities: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). The desire for childrenand the capacity to have themis a primordial blessing.
Not surprisingly, then, the single greatest disaster for any woman in the Bible is barrenness, not the failure of a son or daughter to get into a good college or become a high-income professional. The struggle for life over death structures the account of covenant loyalty in the Book of Deuteronomyand I don’t exaggerate when I say that the narrative form which Deuteronomy gives that struggle is the possibility of having children and the dangers of the empty womb. Obedience to God’s commandments expresses Israel’s hope in the future promised in the covenant, and children are the material form of that hope.
For all our talk about responsible parenting, hope plays a much larger part of all those prudent, planned pregnancies than our contemporary ideologies would like to admit. We give birth to and nurture children whom we cannot finally control. (This, I think, explains the frisson surrounding the Gloucester story. Upper middle class parents live in fear that their daughters will find themselves pregnant at age sixteen and “throw their lives away.”) No amount of power or money or careful planning can change that fact. Even the most competent, most controlling, most omnipresent parent dies. We give our children over to the future whether we will or not.
To care for children and exercise control over them as they grow up is a proper responsibility of parents. This is why all praise should go to parents who work hard to educate their children and do all they can to provide for them. But let’s be honest: As any clear-minded person knows, this noble work can be swept away in a moment by economic, political, and personal tragedies. Planned parenthood? Yes, we can control the womb, but we can’t plan our parenting, and to think otherwise is far more naïve than sixteen-year-old girls who hope that a child will bless their lives. Just ask a parent whose son has been killed in battle or whose daughter has been institutionalized because of mental illness. When we have children we surrender ourselves, saying with the Virgin Mary, however unconsciously, “let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It’s an agonizing submission but also a joyful one. Both sides of this truth, the agony and the joy, are suffocated in the anxious, grey, prudential atmosphere of upper-middle-class attitudes toward children, which really boil down to the very mean and brittle belief that the only future we can trust is the one we can control.
So there’s something reassuring about the idea (and perhaps reality) of the crazy Gloucester “pregnancy pact.” I find it so much brighter, so much more hopeful, than the alternative, which is the “sterility pact” of those so committed to controlling their futures that they can’t risk the uncertainties of childrenor worse, the death pact of a society that seems either too self-centered or too pessimistic to venture the hope for the future that a new generation always evokes. But one important caveat: At Gloucester High, I’d like to see the “marriage pact” as part of the mix.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.
"Pregnancy Boom at Gloucester" by Kathleen Kingsbury