Christen Callahan is 18 and wouldn’t give up her 3-year-old daughter for anything. But, warned the teen mom from Gloucester, Mass. — where a virtual epidemic of high school pregnancies has been tied to a pact reported in TIME magazine — having a baby at such a young age comes at an enormous price.
“You lose everything,” Callahan told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Friday in New York. “You lose your friends. You lose being able to go out. I know a lot of people that like to go out every night. You can’t really do it. You lose — you lose everything.”
Callahan was on TODAY to talk about the epidemic of teen pregnancy at Gloucester High School in her hometown. As TIME reported this week, 17 girls at the high school have become pregnant this year, with half of them sophomores who had entered into a pregnancy pact. All but one of the seven or eight girls who set out to become pregnant are 15 years old; the other is 16. Most got pregnant by their boyfriends, but one father is reportedly a 24-year-old homeless man.
The magazine hit the newsstands the same day celebrity teen Jamie Lynn Spears, kid sister of Britney, gave birth at the age of 17.
The ‘Juno’ effect
And Callahan said that when a celebrity gets pregnant, or a movie like “Juno” portrays teen pregnancy, it has an influence on teens.
“I think it definitely has,” she said. “The people, especially me, I look up to — celebrities. It shows a lot of people that it’s OK,” she said, referring to teen pregnancy.
Demonstrating her point, TIME reported that instead of being dismayed, the girls in the pregnancy pact were delighted to find out they were with child.
“They were thrilled when they got pregnant, and they were very, very proud,” Kathleen Kingsbury, the TIME reporter who wrote the story, told Vieira. Girls would come out of the school’s clinic beaming after taking a pregnancy test and learning the result was positive. One girl yelled, “Sweet!” when she got the news.
“There was a lot of baby-shower planning,” Kingsbury said. “It had a lot of people at the school scratching their heads and wondering what was going on.”
A hard-luck town
What’s going on, said Kingsbury, is a blue-collar town that’s down on its luck, full of kids who don’t have clear plans for their futures.
“Gloucester is a very, very proud community,” she said of the heavily Roman Catholic and insular town that is accessible only by a bridge from the mainland. “It has a long tradition of fishing industry that has really gone away in recent years. Jobs are not there anymore. The jobs that these young people thought they were going to have are disappearing.”
The kids, she said, can’t see a way out. “None of them have a very strong life plan,” Kingsbury said. “Being a mother became something they can do, gave them an identity: ‘I can be someone. I can be a mother.’ They didn’t really have an alternative. Nobody offered them a better life.”
“They are potentially looking for unconditional love,” Dr. Christopher Lucas, a New York psychologist, told NBC News. “Much as puppies and kittens are cute, so is a baby.”
Callahan went back to school after she had her baby, and she and her boyfriend — the baby’s father — are planning to get married. She said that some of the girls in the pregnancy pact asked her what it’s like to have a baby.
“As a parent, I’d give them the pros and cons about being a mother, about being a parent, about how I never got my childhood,” Callahan said, adding that the girls were not deterred. “They’d say stuff like, ‘My parents I think will be fine with it. I think they’ll help me.’ ”
High school day careGloucester High School has a day care center so that young mothers can continue their education, and strollers merge with the crowds of kids changing classes. Some have suggested that by offering day care, the school makes it easy — and acceptable — for teens to have babies.
“I would have to disagree with them,” Greg Virga, the chairman of the town’s school committee, told Vieira. “There’s been pregnancy in high school for God knows how long. The beauty of having the day care is that it encourages the child to stay in school and finish their education, as opposed to encouraging them to get pregnant in the first place. I don’t think it’s a valid argument.”
In May, when the town realized it had a spike in pregnancies, the school’s pediatrician and nurse resigned in protest when the school committee would not allow them to distribute birth control without parental permission. Virga has pointed out that with the girls in the pact, the availability of birth control wouldn’t have made any difference. He did say that the school district has formed a committee to look into the policy and try to find a middle ground.
Baby boomAfter years of decline, teen pregnancies in the United States are on the rise. Last year, more than 700,000 American teens got pregnant, resulting in more than 400,000 babies. But Gloucester’s case is extraordinary.
“I think 17 [pregnancies] is a serious problem,” Virga said. “I think one is a serious problem. It’s something that needs to be addressed, and how we address it has to be within the values of the community. I personally am opposed to confidential contraceptives. There’s got to be something in between nothing and confidential.”
Then there’s the question of how to deal with the fathers. It is illegal in Massachusetts to have sex with a 15-year-old, and the boys who impregnated their girlfriends could be prosecuted for statutory rape even though the sex was consensual and may have been initiated by the girls. They can also be ordered to pay child support, even if they have no jobs or money.
Then there’s the 24-year-old homeless man whom one girl chose to father her child. What to do with him?
“There’s a huge question about what to do about a lot of these fathers, who, essentially because of the law, were committing statutory rape by having sex with a 15-year-old,” Kingsbury said. “I think that’s another problem that the community is really grappling with now.”