An agonizing soul-searching is on in the US over a supposed pregnancy pact involving at least 17 high school girs in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
The news is particularly galling in that it is a largely Catholic town.
In an interview to Time magazine, Gloucester High School principal Joseph Sullivan described a pact entered into by the girls to get pregnant and raise their babies together. The apparent pact might explain the four-fold increase in teen pregnancies at the school this year.
"I heard some of the kids were pleased as punch at the results," said Greg Verga, chairman of the Gloucester School Committee.
One girl even reportedly had sex with a 24-year-old homeless man to fulfill her pledge, according to Time magazine.
Yet others dismiss reports of such a pact as mere rumour. But rumour or no rumour, baby-faced teens pushing baby carriages could be seen everywhere in the blue-collar town of Gloucester.
Seventeen-year-old Alivia showed off her 5-month-old bundle of joy, Xavier. She said her pregnancy was unplanned and that she wasn't part of any pact, although she isn't surprised by the news. "That's just Gloucester," she said.
Teen mom Amanda proudly mentions that baby William is 2 months old today and adds that the other girls may have been motivated to get pregnant because "they see all the girls doing it, and they see the attention they get."
And finally, 17-year-old Meaghan, whose 3-month-old boy is snoozing in a nearby carriage, quietly offers this advice to teens tempted to embrace motherhood instead of math class: "Don't do it, don't get pregnant."
But another Gloucester student, 16-year-old Alycia Mazzeo, said getting pregnant was a decision she will never regret.
"Pregnancy is a beautiful thing," said Mazzeo, "It was an unplanned blessing for me."
Kathleen Kingsbury, who broke the story for Time
magazine, quoted the Gloucester school Principal Joseph Sullivan as saying that most of the girls were lonely, and they didn't have strong families behind them. Most of the girls were sophomores or second year undergraduates.
"I have a feeling that these girls weren't part of the cheerleading squad; they were more loners," Kingsbury says. "As to where the idea of the pact came from, that's still unclear."
The school first noticed the trend because a large number of girls were going to the school clinic to have pregnancy tests. When they found out they were pregnant, they celebrated. One yelled out "sweet!" says Kingsbury.
When Sullivan investigated, six or seven of the girls admitted that they were trying to get pregnant.
Apparently the girls didn't have restrictions in their lives. And they live in a town that has been hit hard by the loss of its fishing industry.
"So these are girls who didn't have a strong life plan, and they decided, essentially, to make their own life plan and take control of the situation," Kingsbury says. "They decided if they needed an identity, being a mother would be their identity."
Another interesting fact is that the girls did not have a strong background in sexual education, which ends freshman year, Kingsbury says — the girls she spoke to had little knowledge of condoms and contraceptives.
"One girl I spoke with said she and her boyfriend used a condom every few times, but they didn't really know why they were doing it," Kingsbury says. "And sometimes they just forgot, and sometimes they just didn't think it was important."
In May, school nurse Kim Daly and the director of the student health clinic, Brian Orr, resigned in protest after the school rejected their proposal to distribute contraceptives regardless of parental permission, according to Kingsbury.
As for the fathers of the babies, Kingsbury says many of them were older than the girls. One was a 24-year-old homeless man who was living in a local shelter; the girls apparently recruited him. Authorities are trying to determine whether to press statutory rape charges against the fathers, according to Kingsbury.
Psychological experts say that pacts among teens, adopted for any number of reasons, are actually quite normal.
"Kids make pacts," says Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and a professor at Emory University's School of Medicine. "It's kind of a way to feel like a part of an in group. It gives kids an identity they share."
"Teen pact behavior -- whether to get pregnant or to commit suicide -- has the same underlying characteristics," notes Dr. Carole Lieberman, Beverly Hills psychiatrist and a clinical faculty member at UCLA. "The act the teenagers conjure up together is forbidden and self-destructive, and therefore must be kept secret."
And as with many past instances of teen pacts -- such as an April 2007 suicide pact in Australia and another in June of the same year in Ireland -- the parents of the teens involved likely had little clue as to what was going on until it was too late.
"The members of the pact develop trust, camaraderie and rebelliousness by sharing this secret," Lieberman says. "These bonds then impel them to commit the forbidden act that they wouldn't have the courage to do on their own."
Besides some have cited pop culture glorification of teen pregnancy as an explanation for the bump in births.
After 14 years of steady decline, the birth rate for U.S. teenagers has risen by three percent. Jamie Lynn Spears, the younger sister of pop star Britney Spears and only 17, has
just given birth to a baby girl.
"There is no doubt that the media influence people -- consciously and unconsciously -- to copycat what is portrayed, whether it's to become violent or to become pregnant," Lieberman says. "Movies like 'Juno' or 'Knocked Up,' soap operas, and pregnant teen celebrities like Jamie Lynn Spears make teen girls believe that getting pregnant is cool, regardless of your age, and whether you love -- or even know -- the father."
That may not be the whole story. But the trends are indeed disturbing.