December 15, 2007
When I was in high school during the Reagan years, teen pregnancy wasn't just taboo, it was the worst possible situation you could find yourself in. Equal parts personal tragedy and quasi-criminal act, getting knocked up (not to be confused with knocking someone else up, which might have been a tiny bit cool) was the ultimate wrong move -- not least because it was preventable in so many ways.
It also was pretty much a moot concept, because I'm talking pregnancies that were actually carried to term, which were conspicuously absent in my affluent, suburban public high school. In the 1980s, most girls who found themselves "in trouble" would either proceed directly to an abortion clinic -- some with the goal of getting out of there in time for an AP history exam -- or be shuffled off to mysterious group homes designed to keep pregnant teenagers out of sight. Not that these weren't terrifying and wrenching propositions, but honestly, in the post-Roe vs. Wade, pre-AIDS, pre-Columbine, pre-9/11 world, true terror had less to do with physical loss and dying than with dying of embarrassment. And nothing was more embarrassing than the prospect of showing up at school with a basketball-sized protrusion under your Member's Only jacket.
Granted, suburban teenhood in the 1980s was an uptight venture. I blame the preppy fashion craze, which upheld kilts and penny loafers as high fashion and effectively made every suburban public school in America feel like a Catholic school. Today, there's some evidence that kids have mellowed on the subject. I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few visibly pregnant girls have walked the hallways of my own high school in the last several years. Could it be that pregnancy isn't cramping teenagers' style as much as it used to?
On Dec. 5, the Centers for Disease Control reported that, after 14 years of decline, the birthrate for women between the ages of 15 and 19 had increased. In 2006, there were 41.9 births for every 1,000 girls in that age range, a 3% rise from 2005.
Meanwhile, "Juno," an extraordinarily witty and unconventional film about this subject, manages to do several things that other recent pregnancy films like "Knocked Up" and "Waitress" couldn't quite bring themselves to do. For starters, it gives its heroine, a sardonic punk rock enthusiast who seems like she should be reading comic books rather than taking pregnancy tests, a real (and in her word, very "boss" ) personality. For another, it sends her to an abortion clinic.
Not that she stays for long. Once inside, 15-year-old Juno MacGuff finds herself swayed by a pro-life classmate's reminder that her baby already has fingernails. She then takes it upon herself to find adoptive parents and get back to the business of being a high school student. Despite a tense confession to her father and stepmother, there's no afterschool-special-style discussion about leaving school or hiding out in some kind of group home for, as the term used to be, "wayward girls," until the baby is born. And while the movie doesn't spare Juno from certain consequences -- she misses the prom and is fully cognizant of people talking about her behind her back -- the factor that has been left most conspicuously out of this equation is shame. Juno may be bummed out by her situation, but she's certainly not mortified.
So maybe the birthrate increase isn't because of lack of education but lack of mortification? After all, if teenage girls were even half as embarrassed to be pregnant as they were in my day, wouldn't they use five different methods of birth control out of sheer paranoia? (If you were a teenager in the 1980s, don't pretend you don't know someone who tried this.) Moreover, once they realize that, thanks to their multiple barrier method, sex feels a lot like stubbing your toe, might they just throw in the towel and abstain?
Evidently not. The CDC report also noted that between 1986 and 1991 (some of the years I was in high school), the teen birthrate actually hit an all-time high of 61.8 births for every 1,000 girls. In other words, our heightened sense of shame did nothing to curb our behavior.
So why the increase? Some experts say it's because condoms are not quite the must-have item they once were now that AIDS is increasingly being perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a manageable disease rather than a death sentence. But I also have to wonder if, in the grand scheme of things, pregnancy is just not as frightening to the current crop of teens as it was to past generations. Considering that kids have been forced to think in a very real way about things that can actually kill you, like terrorist attacks and school shootings and, yes, HIV infection, getting pregnant -- and even raising a child -- might seem like a lesser inconvenience. As for embarrassment, these are kids who post their diaries on MySpace. Do we really expect them to abstain because they're afraid of gossip?
No. But when we think about the reasons the teen birthrate has risen again, perhaps adults would do well to find a middle ground between shunning pregnant teenagers and becoming blase about them in the name of tolerance -- or even in an attempt to seem hip. But we shouldn't allow teen pregnancy to become cool either. Juno may have handled her situation with a wisdom and spunk that exceeded her years, but, in the movies and in real life, girls like her don't come around too often.
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