June 20, 2008

Shock As Schoolgirl Pact Leads to 17 Pregnancies

By David Usborne

It has hardly gone unnoticed in the fishing town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, that girls at its North Shore High School have been getting pregnant in alarming numbers. No fewer than 17 have turned up with child this year, four times the number seen last year.

Stumped for an explanation, officials pointed to the popularity of this year's Oscar-winning film Juno, a heart-warming story about a schoolgirl who finds herself expecting and decides against the quick fix of an abortion.

It is true that national statistics recently showed a small rise in teenage pregnancy rates after a 15-year downward trend. But if anybody in Gloucester thought these girls had simply been careless, they found out differently yesterday.

An investigation by Time magazine came up with a quite unexpected and shocking reason for this year's baby boom. It also resolved the mystery of why so many girls had been trooping out of class and into the school clinic for pregnancy tests, often to seem more disappointed than relieved if the results came back negative. Indeed, many of them were showing up for tests many times.

The report, posted on Time 's website yesterday, claims that teachers finally rumbled that at least half of the girls, none of whom were over 16, had entered into a secret pact to try to get pregnant and then raise their babies together.

Further inquiries revealed even more unsettling details. "We found out that one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless man," the school's headmaster, Joseph Sullivan, revealed.

None of the pregnant pupils or their parents agreed to be interviewed by Time. But Amanda Ireland, who recently graduated from the school and who gave birth herself while a student, said it all made sense to her. Depressed by job losses spurred in particular by the gradual collapse of the fishing industry, Gloucester is not a place that offers its young people much recreational distraction. Trips to the shopping mall eventually lose their appeal, and drastic action was required to alleviate boredom.

"They are so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally," Ms Ireland, 18, suggested. Not that she was in the business of trying to encourage anyone if the subject came up in the school corridors. "I try to explain that it's hard to feel loved when an infant is screaming to be fed at 3am."

Greg Verga, the school committee chairman, reacted to the report with dismay, saying simply that he found it "disturbing". But he too was not entirely surprised. "I have heard rumours some of these pregnancies were not accidents," he said.

It is a scandal that is already dividing the mostly Catholic community, as well as the school. Faced with the need to combat the surge in pregnancies, the school's medical director, Dr Brian Orr, who is a local paediatrician as well as the school nurse, began advocating the prescription of contraceptives to the young pupils this year. But he was fiercely criticised by local officials, including the Mayor of Gloucester, Carolyn Kirk, who complained that "they had no right to decide this for their children". Mr Orr left the school last month.

In any event, teenage girls intent on becoming pregnant presumably are not about to use contraceptives - whether they are easily available or not.

Originally published by By David Usborne in New York.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.