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“16 And Pregnant” Portrays a Grim Reality -- But Does Pregnancy Actually Benefit Some Teenagers?

MTV's reality show paints a dire picture for girls who get pregnant in high school. But new research disproves teen mom stereotypes and even predicts some positive outcomes.

Jenelle is a party-loving high school junior in Oak Island, N.C., with blond hair and a metal stud above one side of her mouth. Andrew is a slim, smooth-talking former model with a fondness for alcohol. They’ve been together three years.

Jenelle thought unprotected sex with Andrew would be OK because they’d tried it before and nothing had happened.

Now they’ve got a baby on the way, and Jenelle’s determined to keep it and stay with Andrew, too. “We’re in it forever now,” she predicts.

For the stars of the first episode of the recently completed second season of MTV’s reality show, “16 & Pregnant,” you couldn’t come up with two less-qualified parents. As they demonstrate their shallowness again and again — Andrew glibly blames his joblessness on the fact that “the economy sucks right now from depression” and Jenelle’s only plan for the baby is that she’ll show it a good time at the beach — you almost want to beg Jenelle to dump Andrew and give the baby up for adoption.

For 40 years, teen pregnancy has troubled policymakers and scholars. Researchers have associated children born to teenage mothers with lower birth weights, lower educational achievement and lower earnings. Pregnancy and motherhood also often interrupt both the mom’s and the dad’s schooling and career plans and mires the child in poverty.

Sarah Brown, chief executive of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, has said part of the reason for the organization’s creation in 1996 was that “too few Americans understood the central role that teen pregnancy plays in child poverty, out-of-wedlock childbearing and welfare dependency.”

Federal funds go to support programs for broadcast messages encouraging men to use condoms and for counselors and teachers to discourage kids from having sex or to use contraception if they can’t wait. Tax dollars also expanded Medicaid-subsidized contraception. All have proven cost effective, paying back many times the funds allocated in healthier, more prosperous and less troubled kids and families that will not need help from the government.

Partly because of such programs, from 1991 to 2008, teen pregnancy and birth rates fell by a third. About one out of five sexually active teen girls will become pregnant this year and 400,000 teen girls will give birth. While that represents progress, many teen girls and boys still misunderstand fertility and contraception, and the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate of comparable countries.

Recent studies show why some teen girls may welcome pregnancy — and why it may be better for everyone if Jenelle and Andrew stay together.

For one, early motherhood provides girls from the poorest neighborhoods a path away from delinquency and drugs and toward a better life, one new study shows. It partly confirms what earlier qualitative studies have demonstrated for decades: For poor teen girls, pregnancy has an upside.

Either because of commitment to their babies or having to stay home at night, “motherhood is pulling a lot of these women away from the pattern of being criminal,” says Derek A. Kreager, assistant professor in the department of crime, law and justice at Penn State University and co-author of the study.

He cautions that no matter how much good pregnancy may do for the moms, the babies born to these moms are more likely to have problems.

A second paper introduces a special series of articles on children and families, and it suggests a role for policymakers. With four out of five single mothers in committed relationships when they get pregnant, the authors write, the couples should undergo counseling on marriage and relationships to help keep them together.

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