Rise in pregnant teenagers troubling

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Jasmine Briley and her friends used to joke that pregnancy was the latest must-have for teen girls. They saw bulging bellies at the teen club and knew girls wanted boys for their genes.

But when she became pregnant at 17, Briley realized there was nothing funny about motherhood.

"A lot of girls think that if they get pregnant, that's how they are going to keep their man and how they are going to be taken care of for the rest of their life," said Briley, who gave birth to a daughter, Justice, in January.

"A lot of younger girls think it's cool, and it's not."

Experts say the attitude is a troubling one, especially considering reports that a group of teens in Gloucester, Mass., might have intentionally gotten pregnant. Gloucester High School has drawn attention because 17 students there became pregnant in the past year.

Nationwide and in Franklin County, the general trend of lower teen-pregnancy rates reversed in 2006.

Among 15- to 19-year-old girls in Franklin County, 80 of every 1,000 were pregnant in 2006, the latest year for which the Ohio Department of Health had numbers. That compared with 77.4 the year before and was the second time in three years that the rate increased.

Nationally, there was a 3 percent hike in 2006 -- the first increase in teen pregnancies in 15 years.

Teachers, school nurses and social workers say girls know what they need to do to prevent pregnancy. But they often skip birth-control pills because they don't want to gain weight, or they submit to boyfriends who don't want to use condoms. Some don't even bother with prevention.

Society has changed, too.

"Certainly, from the time girls who even had a baby weren't allowed to return to public school to the point where pregnant girls could stay in public school, a lot has changed in public attitudes," said Dr. Marion Howard, professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Emory University in Atlanta.

She said teens are making decisions against a backdrop in which more single parents are raising children, pregnant celebrities are glamorized in the media, and teen moms are included in school.

And teen parents are not as ostracized as they used to be: They can earn good grades, remain involved in extracurricular activities, hold office in student government and reign as prom queen.

"We don't treat pregnancy as a disease; we treat it as a life event," said Jill McKinley, a nurse at Westerville South High School.

She said the school accommodates pregnant teens who remain in school. They can rearrange their schedules, go to the nurse's office if they need to rest, and walk instead of run during gym class.

Emma Low, 17, who will be a senior at Pickerington Central High School this fall, said she can't imagine juggling school, motherhood and adolescence.

"I'm really afraid for these girls, in a way," she said. "I know I couldn't handle it."

Briley learned she was expecting the day before the graduation ceremony at North Adult High School. She said the pregnancy was an accident and that she conceived despite taking birth control and using a condom.

She decided to keep the baby and moved out of her mother's home. Huckleberry House's transitional-living program helped her find a one-bedroom apartment in Whitehall where she could live on her own.

"I just can't see being a child, raising a child," she said.

Briley stopped partying and curbed old habits. She stopped getting manicures and pedicures. She doesn't have a cell phone and traded in her 2004 Chevy Malibu for a 1994 Isuzu Rodeo.

She keeps to her apartment, often cooking for friends or watching movies. She's currently trying to earn a nursing-aide certificate.

"She changed my life," Briley said. "If I could do it over again -- most people say they wouldn't do it -- honestly, I would. ... She helped me get my life together."