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Alleged pact puts new focus on teen pregnancy

America's teen pregnancy rate is rising for the first time since 1991, worrying experts.

By Eloise QuintanillaContributors to The Christian Science Monitor, Uri FriedmanContributors to The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 2008

Gloucester, Mass.

A shocking assertion that underage girls promised one another they would become pregnant and raise their babies together has focused a bright light on the resurgent problem of teen pregnancy in America.

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Whether there was such a plan in this overwhelmingly white city on Boston's North Shore is in dispute. After Gloucester High School witnessed 17 pregnancies this school year – more than quadruple last year's average of four – the school principal attributed the surge to a "pact" among "seven or eight" girls in a Time magazine article. But at a press conference Monday, school Superintendent Christopher Farmer said there was a "distinct possibility" that the girls simply decided post-pregnancy to "come together for mutual support."

Yet the incident is alarming whether or not students entered into a pact, experts say. At a time when the nation's teenage pregnancy rate is rising for the first time since 1991, the Gloucester High controversy has rekindled a longstanding debate over how best to discourage teen pregnancies.

"What's happening in Gloucester is a microcosm in some ways for what we're seeing at the national level," says Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy in Washington. "The good news is that we have made extraordinary progress as a nation [since the early 1990s] in convincing people to delay sexual activity and delay pregnancy and parenthood. The bad news is that that progress seems to have come to a complete standstill and, in some ways, has reversed."

Birthrates for teenagers age 15 to 17 rose by 3 percent between 2005 and 2006, the first increase since 1991, according to preliminary data released in December by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Stephanie Ventura, head of CDC's reproductive statistics branch, says it's too soon to say whether the reversal represents a national trend toward more teen births or is simply a "one-year blip." But she adds that the rapid pace at which teen births declined in the US during the 1990s had grown sluggish in recent years, perhaps setting the stage for the 2006 results.

Another CDC report released this month found that condom use among sexually active high school students was essentially unchanged between 2003 and 2007 after steadily increasing from 1991 until 2003. Teen-reported sexual activity rates also underwent no changes between 2005 and 2007.

"There are two things that matter when it comes to preventing pregnancy: not having sex and using contraceptives consistently and carefully," says Mr. Albert. "Both are leveling off at the very best. That may be why we're seeing an increase" in the teen birthrate.