Lay off those not-so-glamorous teen moms

The teen birthrate may be up, but you can't pin it on Juno, Jamie Lynn and Bristol -- yet.


Amy Benfer
January 8, 2009 7:47PM (UTC)

 I've never been entirely clear on what exactly certain members of the media mean when they say that merely depicting a particular act somehow "glamorizes" or "glorifies" it. If anything, watching "Big Love" and "The Sopranos" made me less inclined than I already was to become a polygamist or a mobster, and while I do pine for the clothes on "Mad Men," I can't say that I walked away feeling like I'd like to be a housewife married to a philanderer or a copywriter making the coffee for her colleagues in the '60s. And while I actually did get knocked up as a teenager, I don't remember thinking that, say, Molly Ringwald or "90210" had much to do with it, given that both made it look like kind of a hassle to get through school with your kid.

Nevertheless, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention released some allegedly scary numbers about teen birthrates yesterday and the one thing I can say with certainty is to expect a mention, and possibly an image, of Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears or Juno in roughly two-thirds of the articles.

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According to the report, teen birthrates increased across 26 states in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. These numbers are not new. We've known about the national increase since December 2007; this merely breaks it down by state. So now we know that Mississippi leads the nation in teen births (60 percent higher than the national average) followed by Texas (50 percent higher). Overall, rates were lowest in New England, with New Hampshire the lowest, followed by Vermont. New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia actually saw a decrease in their birthrates. So expect even more talk about the difference between parents and teens in red states and blue states.

But a few reality checks before we all freak out completely: Overall, the increase nationwide is about 3 percent, about where it was in 2003. This follows a steep decline between the years 1991 through 2005, in which teen births dropped by 45 percent for teens 15-17 and 26 percent for those 18-19. Yes, we all wish that it would fall to zero, but even so, it's still far lower than it ever was when the parents of today's teens came of age.

And another thing: While headline writers seem to be comfortable saying that this report shows "teen pregnancy" is on the rise, the "pregnancy rate" and "birthrate" are not the same. The birthrate is based on counting birth certificates and thus only includes pregnancies that result in a live birth, not abortions or miscarriages (which usually account for roughly a third of teen pregnancies). We won't know if part of the increased birthrate may have something to do with a slight decline in abortions until the Alan Guttmacher Institute finishes compiling its data, estimated to be somewhere in late 2009 or early 2010.

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But one thing that is absolutely not in question is that these particular teen mothers, whose children are now roughly 3 years old, got knocked up in 2006 -- before Juno and Jami-Lynn became the public face of teen pregnancy in December 2007, followed by Gloucester girls last summer and Bristol Palin this fall. But when have facts ever gotten in the way of a good story?

USA Today warns that "increases in high-profile unmarried births in Hollywood, movies and even politics is a significant factor for impressionable teens" and quotes Sarah Brown, CEO of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy: "In the last couple of years, we had Jamie Lynn Spears. We had Juno and we had Bristol Palin. Those three were in 2007 and 2008 and not in 2005 to 2006, but they point to that phenomenon," she says. "Glowing media portrayals of celebrity pregnancies don't help," according to MSNBC, who then quotes Stephanie Birch, director of maternal and child health programs in Alaska, as saying, "They make it very glamorous." And Deborah Kotz at U.S. News and World Report thinks that "movies, TV, and flashy magazine spreads romanticizing teen pregnancy may be partly to blame."

Personally, I didn't see anything particularly "glamorous," "romantic" or "glorious" in any of these girls' stories. But while it remains to be seen whether teen pregnancy is actually on the rise for good, or if this year is just a blip, this time around, you can't blame these girls. Leave it for the trend story writers in, ah, 2010.

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Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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