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High-profile teen pregnancy stirs moral debate

/ Source: The Associated Press

In the new hit movie “Juno” and now in real life with Jamie Lynn Spears, 16-year-old girls get pregnant and decide to bear the child rather than opt for abortion. For social conservatives, it’s a challenging story line — they condemn the teen sex but hail the ensuing choice.

“It’s a double-edged sword in the Christian community,” said Bill Maier, a vice president of the conservative ministry Focus on the Family.

“We should commend girls like Jamie Lynn Spears for making a courageous decision to have the baby. On the other hand, there’s nothing glamorous or fun about being an unwed teen mother.”

In “Juno,” the spunky heroine continues attending high school even as her belly swells, and she scouts out a married couple who want to adopt the baby.

Spears, the star of “Zoey 101” and the younger sister of pop star Britney Spears, has said she plans to raise her child in her home state of Louisiana.

Conservative's mixed emotions

The news about Spears was greeted with mixed emotions by Leslie Unruh, a Sioux Falls, S.D., activist who has campaigned against abortion and for abstinence-only sex education.

“When I heard the story, I felt sad at first,” Unruh said. “Already her life is not the norm of other 16-year-old girls.

“You have a lot of teens who look at those people as role models,” she said. “There’s a danger of them thinking, ’She got pregnant? I guess I can have a baby too.”’

The message from Unruh and others: It’s not that simple.

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, said both “Juno” and the Spears pregnancy demonstrated to teens that there are costs to engaging in sex.

“Too often, sex is presented as having no consequences,” she said. “In both of these cases, the girls are pretty much admitting that they made some wrong choices, yet they are acting responsibly now that they’re facing the consequences. That’s a mature response.”

The Roman Catholic Church, while firmly opposed to premarital sex, embraces the message that adoption is among the best options if an unmarried teen does become pregnant, said Deirdre McQuade, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference.

“The admirable choice for an unplanned pregnancy is to make the best parenting plan possible — whether that means making all the sacrifices necessary to raise the child or generously placing him or her in an adoptive family,” McQuade said.

“Juno” is the latest in a series of recent movies in which the heroine, faced with an unexpected pregnancy, chooses not to have an abortion. Others include “Knocked Up,” “Waitress” and “Bella.”

Oversimplifying tough choices

Dr. Vanessa Cullins, vice president for medical affairs at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said these story lines — generally with upbeat endings — oversimplify the tough choices facing real-life girls and women. Each year, more than 1 million of them in the United States opt to have an abortion.

“Hollywood is in this for money and entertainment,” Cullins said. “They are shying away from having the characters fully explore all their options when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

“In the real world, it’s important to weigh all the possible options and then come up with the best one for the teen, the family and the child,” Cullins added. “That will be different for different circumstances.”

Cullins expressed hope that the buzz about teen pregnancies would prompt candid conversations between parents and children about relationships, values and how to avoid unintended pregnancies through abstinence or effective contraception. National statistics released earlier this month showed the teen birth rate on the rise for the first time in 15 years.

Demie Kurz, a sociologist who co-directs the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s studies program, noted that the “Juno” heroine and Jamie Lynn Spears come from well-off families and do not represent the many girls from low-income backgrounds who get pregnant.

“Some of them have the babies as part of their path to what they see as adulthood, but they often put their education on hold, and it makes life a lot tougher,” Kurz said. “Do we want to put burdens on these teenage girls by encouraging them to think that having a baby is cool?”

She said it was reflective of the U.S. political climate that few movies depict abortion as a valid option.

“There should be a responsibility to portray a young person who makes a reasonable choice to have an abortion, or take the morning-after pill,” Kurz said. “The absence of films showing alternatives is really upsetting.”

While Jamie Lynn Spears may have the financial resources to raise her child in comfort, psychotherapist Linda Perlman Gordon of Chevy Chase, Md., — who has written about teenage girls — said daunting emotional challenges likely await.

“Having to be a selfless parent is totally contradictory to the development of a teenager,” Gordon said. “To do it right, she’s got to subsume her needs. She’s going to have to give up the part of growing that would have allowed her to become an autonomous, independent person.”