When Jamie Lynn Spears, the 16-year-old sister of Britney, announced that she was pregnant last month in OK!, the magazine sold a record two million copies and had to run a second printing of the issue to keep up with demand. How could a wealthy preteen idol with her own hit Nickelodeon show, and the good sister to her chaotic older kin, be just several months away from adolescent, out-of-wedlock motherhood? "I didn't believe it because Jamie Lynn's always been so conscientious. She's never late for her curfew," lamented mother Lynne Spears. She got over the shock in a week, and then Jamie Lynn, ever conscientious, notified the press that she would be having, keeping and raising the baby with her mama in Louisiana. "I'm just trying to do the right thing," said the star of Zoey 101.
Only a few days earlier, the film Juno had been released to instant and unanimous applause from such diverse sources as The New Yorker, Christianity Today and Film Freak Central. Suddenly the heroine of a hit movie — a comedy no less — could be a smart, motivated, white, middle-class girl, just 16, who matter-of-factly chooses to have a baby and an open adoption rather than an abortion. No big deal.
Unplanned pregnancy is now a pop-culture staple. Movies like Knocked Up and Waitress, and celebrity moms including Nicole Richie and Jessica Alba, are part of a trend that's sweeping teen culture along with it: American Idol star Fantasia Barrino became a mom at 17, and the last season of Degrassi: The Next Generation ended with Emma realizing she might be pregnant. "The media is awash in it," says David Landry, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute in New York, a non-profit organization focused on sexual and reproductive health. Even Grey's Anatomy had a teen pregnancy storyline last year, and just last week so did Gossip Girl.
"As an idea, teen pregnancy is more socially accepted," says Andrea O'Reilly, a women's studies professor at York University in Toronto, and director of the Association for Research on Mothering. Evidence of a less outraged reaction was best summarized by Hollywood's most sought-after paparazzi muse, Lindsay Lohan: "Why does everyone think it's such a big deal?" she replied when asked what she thought of Jamie Lynn's situation.
Then came the statistical data confirming that something — something real — was happening: in 2006, for the first time in 15 years, the teen birth rate in America actually increased, said a report by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, in England, the number of pregnancies among females under age 18 also rose in 2005 — to the highest point since 1998, according to the U.K.'s Department for Children, Schools and Families.
So far, the numbers aren't rising in Canada, but our statistics are a couple of years old — from 2005. Some experts say that when data does become available, we'll see the same rise as our neighbours. "Overall trends for these three countries tend to mirror each other," says Alex McKay, research coordinator of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. "If we're seeing an increase in the teen birth rate in the U.S. and the U.K.," he continues, "it is quite likely we may see the same thing occur in Canada."
In an era when not getting pregnant should be easy, explanations for the jump in births among teens are speculative, if not elusive. Data on abortion rates or contraception use are outdated, so there's little way of knowing for sure how much of the increase is due to a rise in unprotected sex or a possible decline in abortion rates. Some experts say it's just a blip, a statistical aberration we'll see corrected next year. Others believe the problem is institutional, that ineffective abstinence-only programs are to blame in the U.S. Or that we may have simply maxed out how much teen pregnancy can be prevented. "Whenever you try to improve things it's easiest in the...
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