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A Call for Empowerment, Not Hype and Hollywood Scapegoating

Elizabeth Barajas-Roman and Mia Kim Sullivan

Gloucester High School principal Joseph Sullivan opined to a Time magazine reporter that a spike in baby bumps at his school was due to a twisted sex pact. And the world ate the story up.

Media and community members alike swallowed the story whole, despite the fact that none of the 17 high school girls admitted to an agreement to become pregnant. Nor have any of the 1,200 students in the small, largely Roman Catholic fishing town come forward with additional details regarding the mysterious covenant of motherhood that allegedly invaded the town.

What has become clear is that officials were quick to humiliate the girls by exposing their situation to a gawking national audience while ignoring any substantive discussion of their male partners -- once the girls became pregnant, did they all walk away?

Officials also scrambled to brush off any blame. They had quietly accepted the resignation of the medical director and chief nurse at the school's health center, whose program to distribute contraceptives had recently been shot down. Meanwhile people like Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, point to Hollywood's glamorization of pregnancy and young mothers.

But long before Jamie Lynn Spears and "Juno," there were double-digit percentage increases in the teen birth rate in some of the most economically depressed municipalities in the Massachusetts, according to a 2006 Department of Public Health report.

This is a direct result of a one-size-fits-all approach to sex education, where abstinence is the only key given to teenagers who must navigate today's dark maze of recession, poverty, lack of access to educational excellence, broken family lives and lack of access to -- and understanding of -- abortion and contraceptive options.

Another response has been renewed efforts to sterilize young women for up to 12 years by pushing long-term contraceptives such as implants and hormone shots -- despite the fact that the side effects of these methods can include abnormal bleeding, mood changes, ectopic pregnancies, vulnerability to STIs and HIV/AIDS and irreversible bone loss.

But instead of converting, condemning, or cutting off choices for young women, we must empower them to speak for themselves regarding whether they want to become mothers. Young women must have access to real educational and economic opportunities and health care options - including safe contraceptive methods and abortion services -- in order to make meaningful decisions about their futures and their bodies.

Elizabeth Barajas-Roman is Associate Director of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College.  She is also a freelance journalist who has worked for several national and regional magazines and as a full-time reporter for the "Worcester Telegram & Gazette."  Mia Kim Sullivan is Associate Director of Programs in the Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program at Hampshire College.  Before joining CLPP, Mia worked on civil rights and poverty law litigation, legislative advocacy, and community organizing as a staff attorney for legal services organizations in Massachusetts and Michigan.

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