July 7, 2008

Teen Pregnancy As a TV Series?

When did teen pregnancy become entertaining?

You know, the stuff of a break-out summer comedy, an Oscar-winning independent film, and now the ABC Family series "The Secret Life of the American Teenager." Nothing quite says "a new kind of family" _ the network's slogan _ like a 15-year-old's unplanned pregnancy.

It's only a matter of time before some artist makes "Large Times at Gloucester High."

Apparently, pregnancy provides a better plot device than abortion, especially since the procedure has become one of culture's dirty words. In "Knocked Up," one pothead slacker is so uncomfortable he calls it schmabortion, putting a lie to Hollywood's leftist tendencies.

Teen pregnancy is on the rise for the first time after a 14-year downturn. In real life, misguided teens think pregnancy is a wondrous adventure _ that is, until they have to care for a baby on a daily basis.

"A teenage pregnancy immediately turns the odds against mother and baby," says Dayle Steinberg, president of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Teens believe they're superheroes when it comes to birth control and health care. Young expectant mothers, the poor ones not depicted in Juno or on ABC Family, are more likely to risk unhealthy behavior (smoking, drinking) and less likely to receive prenatal care, putting mother and child at risk.

A baby proves a powerful hindrance to schooling, while tethering young mothers to government services and financial dependency.

Education, not family income or background, is the great indicator of economic success. Those 17 knocked-up girls of Gloucester didn't simply make a pregnancy pact but an agreement that stagnates education, obstructs future career choices, and clogs income.

"Hollywood entertains and Planned Parenthood prevents," Steinberg says. "Responsible behaviors aren't promoted enough."

Studies show teenagers aren't receiving adequate information at home or in the classroom about sex and reproductive health. Abstinence-only sex education, granted substantial federal funding in recent years, teaches the fallibility of contraception and inaccurate information about abortion, according to a congressional investigation.

The lessons have had no effect on curtailing teenage sexual activity, which nearly half of all 15- to 19-year-olds experience. Meanwhile, one in four teenagers contracts a sexually transmitted infection. They represent a fourth of the sexually active population, but half of those people with sexually transmitted infections, suggesting a laxity when it comes to prevention. Last year, an 80 percent increase of gonorrhea cases occurred in Delaware County, Pa., for example, more than a quarter among teenagers.

But that doesn't exactly make for entertainment, does it?

"Secret Life" offered a public-service announcement on teens talking to adults, though the show seems more likely to boost pregnancy-test sales. Scenes from future episodes suggest that the heroine will continue school and get help from her mother.

If only. Teenagers come to Philadelphia's Women's Medical Fund when life doesn't work out like that.

"These are teens who can't tell their parents, and they don't have any money and don't have access to help," says executive director Susan Schewel.

Recently, the Women's Medical Fund helped a 16-year-old obtain an abortion. She felt she couldn't tell her mother _ her father isn't in the picture, and the father of her child isn't, either.

"By making my decision," the girl wrote to the fund with her $25 contribution, "I am now able to move forward in my life and continue my schooling, knowing I can still reach for the stars."

There's a secret life of an American teenager you don't tend to see in movies or on television.



Karen Heller is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at the Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or send e-mail to [email protected]


(c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer's World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTO of Karen Heller available from the ``Columnist Mugs'' section of MCT Direct.

For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.