By now, we’ve all had ample time to absorb the biggest shock news story of 2007: Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy.
So now let us do what Americans love to do: determine who wins and who loses. Who could possibly “win” from a 16-year-old getting “knocked up,” allegedly by her adult ex-boyfriend?
For Jamie Lynn, Britney’s younger sister, the scandal, the details of which purportedly fetched a cool $1 million from OK! Magazine, has proved lucrative. But that was nothing compared to the increased revenue the story generated for the magazine, which reported a doubling, to two million, in the number of copies sold for its edition featuring the Spears tell-all exclusive.
Even at Nickelodeon, where Spears’ show Zoey 101 was a hit with pre-teen girls, producers think the scandal could offer a “teachable moment” and are reportedly mulling a special devoted to the issue of teen pregnancy.
The mainstream media are also big winners, because news of the pregnancy has given them a chance to engage in two of their favorite pastimes: pushing birth control on children and bashing the Bush Administration and its funding of abstinence education. A New York Times story included an interview with high school girls who wondered aloud why no one was talking about contraception. “There is no excuse for not using contraception,” one 16-year-old girl told the Times reporter, who concluded, “The consensus around the table was that it was unrealistic to think that 16 year-olds would not have sex.”
To the cultural Left, which seems to think that the only important variable in any sexual act is the presence or absence of a condom, the sin was not sex at such an early age, or even that Spears’ adult boyfriend may be guilty of statutory rape, but rather that the couple neglected to use birth control.
Washington Post editorial writer Ruth Marcus was genuinely disappointed when her 10-year-old daughter told her that the moral of the Spears pregnancy story is: “Don’t have sex until you get married.” Marcus actually admitted that she felt it would be “a mistake” for her daughters to wait until marriage and goes on to tell her daughters that the lesson of Jamie Lynn Spears is: “whenever you choose to have sex, unless you are ready to have a baby, don’t to it without contraception.”
For the sex-is-for-kids set, Spears’s pregnancy was perfectly timed, coming just days after the Centers for Disease Control issued a report that found the birth rate for 15 to 19 year-olds had increased in 2006, for the first time since 1991. Never mind that births to girls younger than fifteen decreased, or that approximately 20 percent of teenage births are to married couples.
The real headline of the report, however, and one that most of mainstream media neglected even to mention, was that unmarried childbearing has become an even greater problem than teen childbearing. In fact, as the report states, “The increases in 2006 in the number, rate and proportion of births to unmarried women were the largest single-year increases reported in the measures since 1988-1989. …reaching a record high of 38.5 percent of births in 2006.” So, while teen births increased three percent last year, the increase in all out-of-wedlock births was 8 percent, a new record high.
And here’s the kicker: The rise in teen births is not the chief cause of the increase in unmarried motherhood. While 30 years ago more than half of unwed mothers were teenagers, in 2006 teens accounted for fewer than a quarter.
In fact, as Pat Fagan, senior fellow at the Family Research Council, has noted, teen mothers [aged 19 and younger] showed a small decrease as a share of all out-of-wedlock births, dropping from 23.1 percent in 2005 to 22.7 in 2006. Fagan, examining data from the National Center for Health Statistics, discovered that this continues a steady decline in the share of teens having children, from 31 percent in 1990 to just over 23 percent in 2006, with decreases every year since 1997. These decreases, of course, correspond with significant increases in the share of out-of-wedlock births for women aged 20 and older, from about 68 percent in 1990 to 77 percent in 2006.
In fact, teenagers [aged 19 and younger] are the only age cohort that experienced a significant decrease in its share of all out-of-wedlock births. The 25-29 year-old cohort, for instance, saw a .6 percentage point increase in its share of all out-of-wedlock births last year. Sound insignificant? That works out to about 34,000 more out-of-wedlock births in 2006 than in 2005 for 25-29 year olds.
What this means is that while unmarried teenage motherhood is an issue that needs to be addressed, an even more urgent issue is the growing number of adults who fail to link motherhood with marriage. Which is particularly distressing given that social science has established marital status as a potent predictor of outcomes on a wide variety of children’s variables, including socio-economic status, drug use, educational achievement, and mental and physical health.
What does this mean for Jamie Lynn Spears, who says she is “looking forward to being the best mom I can be”? Though clearly too young to marry now, if Jamie Lynn learns that being the best mom she can be will, down the road, require marriage and a stable family life (something she is unlikely to learn from her older sister), then she can help ensure that the biggest shock news story of 2007 has a happy ending.