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June 28, 2008

High School "pregnancy pact" is an urban myth

It should come as no great surprise that Kathleen Kingsbury's TIME Magazine story about a "pregnancy pact" at a Massachusetts high school is falling apart under cursory scrutiny. Allegedly, seven or eight students resolved to get themselves pregnant and raise their babies together.

The piece attracted worldwide attention, likely because it confirmed society's worst fears about wanton, irresponsible, poor girls conspiring to reproduce. The story probably also stoked reader nostalgia for the good old days when pregnant teenagers were summarily banished:

The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. "We're proud to help the mothers stay in school," says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center. [TIME]

Kingsbury heard about the alleged pact from a school principal during an interview about a recent spike in teen pregnancies at the school. He became Kingsbury's sole source for the pact story.

At the time, I thought it was suspicious that Kingsbury couldn't get a single participant in the pact to confirm that the collusion occurred. According to her story, the girls and their families "declined to be interviewed." I have to wonder how hard Kingsbury tried to confirm the principal's allegations. Did she try to track down the fathers of these babies, or anyone else who might have direct knowledge of the pact, if one existed? Or did she just take "no comment" for answer? I'm disappointed that TIME chose to air such an inflammatory rumor without corroboration.

The principal claimed that the spike was due to seven or eight girls who decided to get pregnant on purpose and raise their babies together. The sensational tale made headlines worldwide. Like all good stories, this one improved in the re-telling. MSNBC reported that there were seventeen conspirators in the group, up from seven or eight in the principal's original claim.   

Alarmed, the mayor of the town pressed the principal for details. According to the mayor, the principal's memory was foggy when he was pressed for details in a meeting with herself and the superintendant. He couldn't remember how he heard about the pact.

Now, the principal has issued a statement challenging the mayor's claims about his shaky memory.

Time published the assertion without further evidence. On Monday, Mayor Carolyn Kirk said that an inquiry had turned up no evidence of a pact, and she claimed that Mr. Sullivan “was foggy in his memory of how he heard this information.” And a local newspaper reporter covering the story closely said “the idea of the pact is not something we had reported and not something we have found.”

In his latest comments, Mr. Sullivan aimed “to put to rest the notion” that he had difficulty recalling his underlying evidence:

My only direct source of information about the intentional pregnancies at the high school was the former nurse practitioner at the Health Center. My other sources are verbal staff reports and student/staff chatter, all of which I have found to be very reliable in my experience as a principal and all of which I filter myself for accuracy and keep confidential.

Kim Daly, the former head nurse practitioner who was his direct source, told The New York Times that she could not back up the “pact” claim. “It was complete news to me,” said Ms. Daly. “I have never heard of it, ever.” [The Lede]

Subsequently, one of the pregnant students told Good Morning American that was no pact to get pregnant. The 17-year-old mother to be said that a bunch of girls who were already expecting decided that they would help each other raise their babies while staying in school. Somehow, the rumor mill twisted this benign self-help arrangement into a bizarre reproductive conspiracy.

The pregnancy pact story had the ring of an urban legend from the very beginning. The reporter and the public were way too eager to believe that wanton females besotted by Juno were getting pregnant to take advantage of their high school's inclusive policies for teen moms. This wasn't journalism, it was a bad morality play. Now the shoddy story is finally unraveling. Unfortunately, the rumor has spread so widely that it will take a lot of debunking to strip the fable of its aura of truthiness.

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Remember all those Massachusetts teenagers who vowed to get pregnant and raise their babies together? Less there than meets the eye: Alarmed, the mayor of the town pressed the principal for details. According to the mayor, the principal's memory was... [Read More]

Comments

There's even more to it---there's been a battle in town over handing out contraception in the school. The health center at the school really wanted to do it, but the hospital and some of the administration opposes them, in no small part because so much of the community is Catholic. So there's a lot of motivation there to seek out an explanation for the pregnancy rate that precludes someone arguing that access to contraception would have reduced it. If you can convince people that the girls wouldn't have taken birth control even if they had it, then you don't have to pass it out in the future.

It's ass-covering and passing the buck. The principal doesn't want to own the fact that contraception access feeds into the high teenage pregnancy rate, because that implies responsibility to change the situation.

Daycare was the last subject of 'recovered memory'. Why can't they just call them lies?

Another case of a journalist manufacturing a story to get attention?

This reminds me of a UPI story from 2005 where a reporter claimed the Lancaster County, PA, Amish don't vaccinate their children, and autism is unknown in their community. The reporter, Dan Olmsted, didn't bother to check out the cryptically-named Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, PA, which treats dozens of kids who present with symptoms of autism.

That was four years ago, and still anti-vaccine activists love to repeat the urban myth that the Amish don't have autism because they don't vaccinate.

What I don't understand is why this blog post is so conclusory in its tone.

I too have been listening half-heartedly to the details of this story, including those your first commenter here shares. (Though the language she chose in her reporting: "there's been a battle in town" I must admit brought a smile to my lips... Thank goodness they left their firearms at home. ;-)

I thing the principal -- Sullivan, stands by his classification. And why should he lie? (Sorry but I doubt it's all tied in to some sinister "contraception" story.)

If it is true what he originally reported: that oddly the school nurse told him some of the girls had repeatedly tested for pregnancies, and expressed "disappointment" if the test was negative", then why are you so quick to tramp out the idea perhaps some of these young women were not so much ignorant of the basics of where babies come from, but perhaps encouraged by modern culture to think motherhood might perhaps be a rewarding and enjoyable path they might be eager to pursue -- even at their young, barely mature ages themselves?

As I understand it, the principal defended himself, saying he was not "forgetful" or cloudy about any of the details he reported. And yes, I do believe the high school "gravevine" or hallway chatter is often a good source of high school news reporting... If he was tuned into that, doesn't it make more sense that the mayor and the families themselves have reason to backtrack on this one and deny?

Liberals, the far left ones, would have us believe that education and free contraception will end young motherhood. As someone from the type of culture that produced early mothers, I think not all women are ignorant or unwanting of the situation they find themselves in. You can play the shame game if you like, or the "it takes two" fingerpointing -- Put me down on the "it's wrong, it's wrong, it's wrong" when young women are sweettalked into unprotected sex by adult men over 20; Go after that and I suspect you'll have a lot of allies like me -- but sadly, these things usually end with the longstanding pillars of society slapped at: the principal and schools for pointing out the truths about daily life; the religious for wanting to teach young adults about their own possiblities and self worth, and focusing on the sacred responsibilities of bringing and caring for another young life in this world.


Sullivan's story has changed. In the original TIME story, he claims to know that seven or eight girls conspired in advance to get pregnant. The mayor of the town and the superintendent called Sullivan into a meeting and asked how he learned this incredible information, he told them that he couldn't remember how he learned about the story. He issued a statement claiming that he learned about the pact from the school nurse, who told the NYT that she'd never heard of such a thing. Sullivan added that he had hallway chatter to back him up. Rumors. No names, no dates, no details, no confessions from alleged conspirators, no hard evidence of any kind--just the assertion that he'd heard rumors alleging a pregnancy pact.

One of the pregnant girls denied the existence of a conspiracy on Good Morning America and explained that they decided to help each other with child care and stay in school after they were already pregnant.

It's possible that some of the 17 girls who got pregnant at Gloucester High this year did so deliberately, but that's a far cry from a nefarious pregnancy pact.

Why would Sullivan lie? I think he passed on some poorly-sourced gossip to the reporter who published it in TIME Magazine, which caused an international media sensation, to the great embarrassment of the city and the school district. Now the principal is in the awkward position of explaining why he allowed himself to be quoted on the record in his official capacity passing on poorly sourced rumors as fact.

I thought the "one of the women even did it with a homeless man" bit was a nice touch.

lindsay,

You don't know if the principal's story "has changed". What has changed is that he has given an unfiltered version of his story which is different than the Times mag version.

Are you all of a sudden assuming Time has a lock on the truth?

The fact is that we don't really have enough facts one way or the other. There are some semantic games being played between "intentional pregancies" and "pact".

It seems fairly freaking obvious that if teenage pregnancies have gone from 2 to 5 to 18 in 3 years, access to contraceptives is not the problem. Whether there was a "pact" or not is besides the point. It's pretty clear that a bunch of these girls got pregnant intentionally, and that's what people should be focusing on.

Sullivan is backtracking in his statement. He stops short of accusing TIME of misquoting him, but he now claims that he told Kingsbury merely that "a number" of pregnancies were "intentional" and that these students were "friendly" with each other:

"I honestly do not remember specifically using the word "pact" in my meeting with the Time magazine reporter, but I do specifically remember telling Ms. Kingsbury that my understanding was that a number of the pregnancies were intentional and that the students within this group were friendly with each other. At no time in the interview did I mention any student names nor did I breach any confidences and at the conclusion of the meeting, I told Ms. Kingsbury to leave the high school property because I did not want her to be trying to interview students.

[...]

My only direct source of information about the intentional pregnancies at the high school was the former nurse practitioner at the Health Center. My other sources are verbal staff reports and student/staff chatter, all of which I have found to be very reliable in my experience as a principal and all of which I filter myself for accuracy and keep confidential."

Compare that to what TIME attributed to him, emphasis added:

"But principal Joseph Sullivan knows at least part of the reason there's been such a spike in teen pregnancies in this Massachusetts fishing town. School officials started looking into the matter as early as October, after an unusual number of girls began filing into the school clinic to find out if they were pregnant. By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, "some girls seemed more upset when they weren't pregnant than when they were," Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse. "We found out one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless guy," the principal says, shaking his head."

So, the principal told TIME that he had confessions. His official statement says that the school nurse told him and that he had chatter, no direct confessions.

That's a pretty big change in his story. Nevermind the incident with the mayor and the superintendent in which he apparently claimed he didn't even remember how he knew.

The pact is an urban legend. Intentional pregnancies, maybe. Even that claim is still totally unsubstantiated and based on the word of a highly questionable source who now finds himself in a great deal of trouble in his school district. He his stories have already been flatly contradicted by the mayor of the town (re: meeting) and the school nurse (re: source of info on alleged intentional pregnancies).

How is it pretty clear mario? You must have the same mind reading capabilities as the principal!

Liberals, the far left ones, would have us believe that education and free contraception will end young motherhood.

Far left liberals say that education and free contraception will end the problem of teenage pregnancy? Huh. Okay, name one.

"My other sources are verbal staff reports and student/staff chatter, all of which I have found to be very reliable in my experience as a principal and all of which I filter myself for accuracy and keep confidential."

He keeps it so confidential he blabs it to Time Magazine and the New York Times.

Mary, I explained why he should lie. He's trying to weasel out of the inevitable conclusion, which is that the high school needs to make contraception available.

lindsay,

If you read the different reports - there are several, independent sources that either allude to, or outright state, that some number of the pregancies were intentional.

That, coupled with an amazing rise from 2 to 18 pregancies in 3 years makes it clear to me that intention has to be part of the cause, unless someone can point to some kind of complete breakdown in the contraception delivery system in Gloucester.

But, my main point is that the notion of a "pact" is way besides the point, and is really deflecting us from the real story, and it's forcing all of the town pfficials into CYA mode, and allowing them to avoid the real story.

2 to 18 is the real story. This town has a problem.

Which isn't to say that it will end teenage pregnancy. But surely even the most slow-witted of conservatives agree that reducing is better than doing nothing at all.

Mario, so we agree: The pact was an urban legend. There is absolutely no evidence that any such conspiracy ever existed. The whole thing is the product of a loose lipped, self-contradicting school administrator with a vested interest in shifting blame from his own ineffective policies on contraception to anonymous teen girls who were allegedly maliciously knocking themselves up.

Yes indeed, the town has problems, starting with a principal who won't accept accountability for his actions or keep his story straight.

lidsay,
No, we don't exactly agree. We can never really know whether a pact existed, unless someone talks to all 18 of these young girls.

And I don't understand why you're so quick to attack the principal. I have no dog in this fight, and I don't know anyone involved so I can't speak to anyone's personal integrity, but I have seen enough examples of Time magazine (and eveyone else in the MSM) grab onto (or make up) a sexy (not the best choice of words here) angle.

Did the principal actually say "pact"? WTF knows? You certainly don't. And if he didn't, is it the principal who deserves scorn, or the reporter?

To say there's "no evidence" simply belabors the fact that we don't have a whole lot of anything conclusive about this story, except for a bunch of self-interested officials trying to cover their butts.

The only real evidence, as I said, is 18 pregnancies. I hope someone in that town is looking into why that happened - and frankly, if it took the "pact" story to draw attention to the matter, that's probably a good thing, or else the butt-covering town officials may have just as soon hushed up the whole thing, hoping it would go away.

Mario, consider the logical alternatives: i) The principal never claimed there was a pact, in which case we have no evidence of a pact, or, ii) The principal did claim there was a pact, but has since recanted, and now asserts that some of the girls who seemed happy to be pregnant were friends.

We don't know which it is, but since Principal Sullivan was the only source for this claim, the pregnancy pact story has been debunked.

Yes, it's alarming that the teen pregnancy rate shot up at Glouchester High, but we don't know why that happened, all we've got is speculation from a thoroughly unreliable source.

"...the pregnancy pact story has been debunked."

That's no fun at all.

"The only real evidence, as I said, is 18 pregnancies."

That is in fact great evidence that 18 people are pregnant. That they had some sort of pact to get pregnant? Not so much.

"We can never really know whether a pact existed..."

If we don't know whether it existed we probably shouldn't write "news" stories saying it does.

No names, no dates, no details, no confessions from alleged conspirators, no hard evidence of any kind--just the assertion that he'd heard rumors alleging a pregnancy pact.

Lindsay,
I'm not sure if you went to a regular American day high school, but applying a courtroom standard of evidence to such a place will never convict anybody of anything according to those rules of "proof". Still, shit happens. And people talk about it. A lot. And lots of the "facts" circulating -- the where, the when, the who, the what -- tends to be reliable enough to travel to a party on (for example) and often bears itself out from rumor to fact, say 9 years down the line when the physical "evidence" ultimately is revealed, without the pinpointing type of details you seem to require for "proof."

Of course there is no written transcript of these conversations. I imagine a nurse telling of her "patients" reactions to their multiple test results might violate some kind of confidentiality rule. And what kind of principal is going to narc out a teenage student, say, who points out perhaps observed promiscuity with the hopes of gettign pregnant. (Remember, if you were young and looking to get pregnant, chances are you had to try more than once, right? And other kids don't notice -- and talk about -- who's doing the "big nasty" at that age? It's not a college campus; that kind of behaviour is still considered an aberration, and yes, people talk.


I think absolutely the pregnant girl getting airtime on national news; the embarrassed mayor and school board; and hopefully the parents of these girls, would be better off if these details were never talked about.

Doesn't make them "not true". And it's kind of revealing of your aspired journalistic style to make a conclusion here, rather than sharing and assessing the facts (as ironically, I think Sullivan or any decent principal could do.)

You obviously have a preferred "take" on these facts. I really don't. Susupect it wasn't a "sit around and swear blood brother" oh, and sign this formal form to make a "pact" ... but it wouldn't surprise me in the least if there was some desire on the part of at least some of these women to "rebel" and make little babies that they could love and raise and have a little piece of the boy(s) who sired them.

It's the argument that women like these are merely ignorant, and free contraception and teaching them how to screw but not conceive, is all they need... that makes me realize how totally off base lots of y'all are.

The more I read your flames about the principal, the liar!, the more I hope that so many of you young lefties don't reproduce until you actually grow up. It's the parents like you who undermine the principals actually, you know, getting the daily job done.

I read everything LB quoted, and she and I obviously come from different places. Of course the poor principal is in trouble -- the mayor and the school look bad. So shut the adult leader closest to the kids' swirl up! Don't you think that man cares about those girls, and has gotten to know them as people and their character? Don't you think he's sad that 18 of them have taken on this, and clearly they won't all turn out to be positive choices for themselves or the new life. It's a sad story really... The principal gets that, I suspect.

Trust me. The principal, there day in day out, knows these kids and knows his school population. I'd bet on it. Of course the nurse can't confirm, but multiple pregnancy tests? 18 of them, coincidentally were so ignorant they got knocked up.

He's not backtracking if he says "pact" is too strong a word.

But explain to me how "intentional pregnancies", if you prefer, would be solved by shoving free condoms or pills down their throats? Whoopie, doesn't support your argument?

And Ms. Marcotte? If you've got an argument, don't resort to emotional namecalling, eh? Thought you might have learned that one by now without playing the "weasel" words.

The more I read your flames about the principal, the liar!, the more I hope that so many of you young lefties don't reproduce until you actually grow up.

[...]

If you've got an argument, don't resort to emotional namecalling, eh?

Mmmmm...now that's great troll!

Mary: ”As someone from the type of culture that produced early mothers . . .

“It's the argument that women like these are merely ignorant, and free contraception and teaching them how to screw but not conceive, is all they need... that makes me realize how totally off base lots of y'all are.”

Newsflash: All cultures produce early mothers. As soon as offspring can be produced that can be reasonably expected to survive to produce further offspring, any organism will do so, moralistic definitions of “early” notwithstanding. All the hoping and praying that abstinence education will convince teenagers to keep their pants on runs up against a billion years of evolution.

Convincing people not to screw so that they might eventually go to heaven will always be uphill work. On the other hand if you can convince the families of teenage girls that God prefers unwed girls confined to a dungeon or dead then you can get a society that is reasonably free of unwed, but not teenage mothers.

Sorry cfrost.
There are plenty of parochial and public schools as well that can go years without having a pregnant girl under 18 in the graduating class. And I don't mean they all aborted either...

18 in one year? That's some high school. It's not a lack of freebie condoms (what are they -- a few bucks a pop at the drug store?), I'm saying look a bit closer at the culture that makes these women want early motherhood.

And then take a look at some of the more successful schools -- parochial, private and public -- that are able to instill some sense of self worth, community, and other opportunities available, and see what they are doing RIGHT to keep their young women from conceiving so very early. It might not be that they are not having sex; they are just not desiring to get pregnant, and in this day and age, it's very possible to do both.

My point about y'all not having children: just keep them out of my kids' schools, eh? Because with parents like LB and some of those here eager to jump on the principal, it's the same as those parents who think their kid is always right and the teacher (or any authority) is always wrong. Nevermind he's doing a job most of you couldn't hack for a day. Much easier to sit on the sidelines and sling arrows and toss around the "liar" label -- "All 18 were a coincidence!, lack of contraception!!, it's those evil authority men putting the girls in this situation!!!, etc etc" that is pitiable.

The principal sees a problem in his community, and is trying to address it in hopes of getting some help. Marcotte and LB here are making an important feminist issue, perhaps fodder for a book.

They don't care about these young women, their children, or what will become of that community once they have moved on from making their big "authority man is evil; poor young women being kept ignorant due to nobody buying them contraceptives" point.

If these girls wise up and grow up soon though, they'll see that the LB and Marcotte's are in a way using them. The principal and their own parents/families may express disappointment and not soften their reactions, but then they really care about these women -- and the babies.

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