Teen Pregnancy No Longer Taboo, Writer Says In her recent op-ed, "Knocked Up But Not Out," Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum gives another perspective on why teen pregnancy rates are increasing after years of decline. She says the change in birthrate isn't a result of a lack of education, but rather, "a lack of mortification."
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Teen Pregnancy No Longer Taboo, Writer Says

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Tomorrow, streets will be empty, stores closed. Yet, plenty of people will be working on Christmas day. Send us a note if you're one of them. It's talk@npr.org. And speaking of Christmas, Jews across the country make their pilgrimage to the local Chinese restaurant. We'll explore that ancient tradition too on tomorrow's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And now, the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. We did a show last week about the jump in teenage pregnancies up about three percent after dropping for 14 years. The day after that, everybody was talking about teens and pregnancy. That's when the news came out that Jamie Lynn Spears, Britney's 16-year-old actress sister, is pregnant. And as far as why we might be seeing this rise in pregnant teens, Meghan Daum has an idea.

In her column for the Los Angeles Times , which also came out before the news of the Spears pregnancy, she argued that it's not lack of sex education but a lack of mortification. Teenage pregnancy just isn't scary enough anymore.

Do you agree? Is pregnancy just not as frightening to teens as it used to be? Why or why not? 800-989-8255. You can also e-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Meghan Daum is in the studio at Marketplace Productions in Los Angeles. Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. MEGHAN DAUM (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And merry Christmas to you.

Ms. DAUM: Merry Christmas. Thank you.

CONAN: And you write that when you were in high school, teen pregnancy wasn't just taboo. It was the worst thing in the world.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. You know, it's funny. I was in the same boat as you were. And I think a lot of people in the media, I wrote the column a couple of weeks ago and I was reacting mainly to two things. The CDC figures that you just mentioned and this new movie called "Juno," which is getting a lot of buzz and which deals with the subject of teen pregnancy in a different kind of manner than the typical after school special. And it seemed to me that it was kind of in the air. And I talked about the various reasons that might be. And then, like you said, a couple of days after the column ran, the news came out that Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant. And as soon as I figured out who she was, I thought that's pretty remarkable.

But to answer your question, I thought back to my high school days, which, you know, were back in the 1980s, which shows how dinosaur I am. And, you know, when I was a teenager, getting pregnant was pretty much the worst possible thing that could happen to you. And that was in a post-Roe v. Wade world. So I say that knowing that it was exponentially scarier for people before that time.

And you know, I think there are a couple of reasons for that. It seems naive now but, you know, in the '80s, we weren't yet afraid of AIDS. That would come, you know, perhaps towards the late '80s and the early '90s. School shootings, for instance, hadn't really entered the imagination. At least not in middle school - middle class communities.

But I think that we were really as much afraid of the shame of being pregnant than anything else about it.

CONAN: And what's happened, do you think, to take shame out of the equation?

Ms. DAUM: Well, I mean, for one thing, as I said, getting pregnant -considering all of, you know, the various diseases and, you know, other kind of maladies that are out in the world - getting pregnant is actually not the worst thing that can happen to you, in a lot of ways. So I think that along with that comes a reduced kind of shame. But I think - and I want to be careful about this. It's good that we're not, you know, shunning girls anymore. They're not being sent off to, you know, sort of homes for - they used to be called wayward girls. I mean, it probably still goes on in some places but not like it did in the '60s and the '70s and, you know, the early '80s. But you know, I think that there's been a lot of effort to destigmatize teenage pregnancy in order to get girls to stay in school, which is a good thing. And you know, despite all the benefits of those efforts, you know, the side-effect is that it's not really such a big deal anymore. And I'm just speculating here and kind of thinking, you know, observationally and anecdotally but perhaps that is contributing to some of the Spike.

CONAN: Is sex education part of it too, do you think?

Ms. DAUM: Well, I mean, from what I read - and again, I'm a columnist. I'm not somebody who's done my own research or, you know, I'm not speaking from a scientific point of view. But from what I read, condom use in the 1990s - you know, around concerns about HIV - really did drive the teen birthrate down. And so now, for better or for worse were kind of reduced Spears over HIV -apparently, the condom is not the must-have item as it was in the '90s.

CONAN: We should also point out that this young girl - this young woman - yes, Brittney Spears' 16-year-old sister. But she'd always been held up as much more of a role model. She's on the television in a role that - well, I guess a lot of girls saw her as somebody completely different from her older sister.

Ms. DAUM: Yeah. You know, like I said, I'm not in the demographic to have known who Jamie Lynn Spears were.

CONAN: Me neither.

Ms. DAUM: Okay. But now, maybe we'll see what the ratings of this show if this actually helps it or hurts it. But, you know, yeah. Apparently, she was a tremendous Role Model for girls. She was somebody who wasn't kind of really boy-crazy and she was a good student. This is the character - I think the show is called "Zoey 101."

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DAUM: Excuse me if I have that wrong. I think that's right. So, yeah, it's just kind of - you know, it's probably sort of a bummer for a lot of these girls, you know? She - I supposed - I think the character on the show was supposed to be a virgin, not that that was the main storyline, but, you know. And this week, where we're celebrating a virgin birth, perhaps it's fitting that we talk about this.

CONAN: Let me ask you also. Is shame, necessarily, something we want to be re-injecting into this equation?

Ms. DAUM: No. I mean, shame is a very strong word. But, you know, like I said, you know, back in the '80s and before that, too, it was just the worse possible thing that could happen to you. And there was a lot of kind of secrecy. I mean, being a teenager has traditionally been about being embarrassed, right? And, you know, just dying of embarrassment.

And, again, I mean, when I kind of think about this stuff not being a teenager myself but from what I kind of observe of the teenagers around me, the concept of shame is gone. I mean, it's not gone but it is reduced. And I think that's true across the board in the culture. I mean, we have people confessing to all sorts of things and not really being embarrassed at all. And that's, you know, largely good but sometimes, you know, sometimes shame can kind of keep us in line a little bit.

CONAN: Meghan Daum of the Los Angeles Times. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail, talk@npr.org.

And let's begin with Claire(ph). Claire, calling us from Charleston in South Carolina.

CLAIRE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

CLAIRE: I agree with a lot of what she was saying. After teaching high school for 15 years, I have seen very little stigma at all with a lot of kids that get pregnant. You know, I see the students throw each other baby showers. And the kids go back to going to the prom and go back to hanging out at the club while grandmama stays home and watches the kid. And I wonder if, you know, there are any real changes to my lifestyle but I get to sort of dress my child up and show it off to my friends. But then, the real work gets turnover to someone else that why is there any real deterrent from, you know, sort of having their cake and eating it, too, with the attention.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So lack of consequences.

CLAIRE: Right.

CONAN: Uh-huh. Meghan Daum?

Ms. DAUM: Well, I think that there's a lot to that. I - you know, I would be remissive. I didn't point out something that I discovered while writing this column, which, you know, the period between 1986 and 1991, which I was kind of romanticizing as this great sort of period where we were so embarrassed about this and the pregnancy rate must have been down, the birth rate was at an all-time high. The teen birth rate actually was 61.8 births for every 1,000 girls, which is…

CONAN: And 20 points lower to that, yeah.

Ms. DAUM: …higher than - yeah. Yeah. I mean, so let's be realistic about this. But, you know, to just address with this caller was saying, there are high schools that have daycare centers in them. I'm not going to say that's a bad thing. It helps keep kids in school - boys and girls, especially girls who are parents because they think it's like one out of four girls who drop out of school or do so because they are pregnant or have kids. But, you know, there's always a flipside to this.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Claire.

Here's an e-mail from Laura(ph) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Teen pregnancy is still taboo in Oklahoma. I'm only 22 and my old high school still has a you-show-you-go policy. However, there are no repercussions for the fathers. A bit unfair, I think. I find girls are still being pressured into sexual relationships at high schools and boys are not being punished for it. And I'm not sure that that's changed much, Meghan Daum?

Ms. DAUM: No, I don't think that has changed, you know? This is - the burdens of being a female are many and this is pretty much the salient one.

CONAN: Let's get Deborah(ph) on the line. Deborah with us from Bremerton in Washington.

DEBORAH (Caller): Yeah, hi. I'm sort of echoing one of the couple previous callers have said. I had a child out of wedlock in the '70s, gave him up for adoption. And part of what I see is a lack of understanding, I think, at a very deep level on the part of these young girls about what it really means to be a mother and raise a child and be responsible for their physical and moral upbringing. And some of that is because it's easier, there's daycare centers nearby and also because it was not just a no-show policy when I was in school. If any of your teachers knew you were pregnant, they had to tell the dean and you were thrown out.

CONAN: Tell the dean and you were thrown out.

DEBORAH: Yeah.

CONAN: That's what happened to you?

DEBORAH: No. Actually, some of my teachers decided not to do that with me. I was able to stay through the end of my first trimester and then summer happened and a teacher's strike and I got through okay.

CONAN: Because one of the unfortunate consequences of teen pregnancy, the statistics show and individual cases, of course, vary. But statistics show it's a ticket to poverty.

DEBORAH: Yeah. But I also think that adoption is not seen as a viable option anymore either. And that's a shame.

CONAN: Hmm. And how is everybody doing in your case, Deborah?

DEBORAH: Oh, I gave my son up for adoption…

CONAN: Yes.

DEBORAH: …many years ago so I don't know.

CONAN: And you don't know. Okay, well then, thanks very much for the call. I appreciate it.

DEBORAH: You're welcome.

CONAN: And have a good holiday.

DEBORAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one last caller in, and this will be Catherine(ph). Catherine with us from Moraga in California.

CATHERINE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

CATHERINE: Great topic. I just want to (unintelligible) because I'm going to make some provocative statements. So I just want a (unintelligible) it by saying I don't advocate teen pregnancy, so I want to be understood. And the context of it is I think that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The entire topic and the issue is really, again, from the Victorian era until now, trying to control women sexuality.

I think the normal biological drive is to be sexually active at that age. And we imposed layer upon layer of these artificial, social pressures to try to manipulate teenage behavior. And it doesn't work. And I think the only reason why we have issues of poverty is because society, we don't support teenage girls in the way that they need to be supported. We support them in a way that we try to manipulate them.

And I mean, I think teenage pregnancy - if it's something that happens and - that they want to get pregnant and they want to have the showers and that whole experience, I mean, I came from a teen mom. My grandmother had my dad at 15. It used to be that the family and the community raised the kid, not just the kid, you know, the mom. And we have just - I mean, I don't know how to actually quantify this but I just - I think this is a non-story.

CONAN: Meghan Daum, is this…

CATHERINE: I think it's never gets to change and, oh, go ahead.

CONAN: I was just going to ask Meghan Daum if she thinks this was a feudal attempt to counter biology.

Ms. DAUM: Well…

CATHERINE: I actually, I really, really do. I think…

CONAN: I was asking Meghan to respond to your point.

Ms. DAUM: I'm going to jump in on - to that to answer the question. I mean, you know, I'm the first to say that it takes a village to raise a child. But that is an entirely different kind of notion than what we're talking about here. I mean, you know, I do really think that parenthood in this country has been sort of it's decided that this is the default sort of setting. And it's not necessary for every adult to have a child. But we sort of seem that it does and it trickles down into sort of teenage opinions.

And Neal, can I make a point? I wanted to say one more thing. I don't know…

CONAN: Go ahead.

Ms. DAUM: …how much more time we have. But, you know, just to sort of look at this from the other side and maybe play devil's advocate a little bit, we need to ask ourselves what we are really punishing Jamie Lynn Spears for. Is it for having sex? I mean, is it for not using birth control properly? Or is it for not having an abortion? You know, let's think about that because what we don't talk about - and mostly because it's kind of unknowable - are the numbers of teen stars, for instance, if we just want to limit it to celebrities, who get pregnant and have an abortion and no one is the wiser.

And so, you know, I think we can agree that's the road more often traveled for teen celebrities. But we're crucifying the one who did it another way.

CONAN: Catherine, thanks very much…

CATHERINE: I…

CONAN: I'm going to have - we are out of time at this point…

CATHERINE: Yes.

CONAN: …Catherine, so I have to say thank you for the call and…

CATHERINE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: …I appreciate it. And Meghan Daum, thank you as always.

Ms. DAUM: My pleasure, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: Meghan Daum, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. We have a link to her piece, "Knocked Up But Not Out," on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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