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
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.