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September 19, 2008

Inside the Gloucester Pregnancy Pact

Last summer, 18 teenage girls upended a quiet Massachusetts town and caused America to let out a collective gasp. But was there really a pact?

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gloucester teenage pregnancy pact

Kyla on the docks in downtown Gloucester.

Photo Credit: Danielle Levitt

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There's something wrong with this one. Do another one," 16-year-old Kyla Brown begs Gloucester High School nurse Kim Daly. Sure, Kyla's breasts ache. And she had unprotected sex with her boyfriend just a month ago. Still, she is not ready to accept these results.

Nurse Daly slides the second pregnancy test - its two pink lines undeniable - in front of Kyla. "What are you going to do?" she asks kindly.

Kyla's soft features sag as she blasts out of the room to find her friend. Holy shit, the friend says, passing her cell phone to Kyla so she can call her mother.

"Mom," Kyla says weakly when her mother answers the call at home. "How do you feel about becoming a grandma?"

The question floats there, unanswered. "I'm picking you up," her mother finally manages.

Thank God, Kyla thinks. I just want to go home and eat tuna melts with my mom and breathe.

Nurse Daly first noticed last October, about a month into the school year, that more girls than normal were wearing a path to her office for free pregnancy tests. (Down at the local CVS, they're a hefty 9 bucks apiece.) She'd confirmed four pregnancies, as many as she had the entire previous year. More ominously, the kids - many of them under 16 - were returning week after week asking for new results, as if they were trying to get pregnant. Some were giddy when two lines glowed pink, others cried when the results were negative. By March, the tally of expecting teens, including Kyla Brown, ticked up to 10. By May, after some 150 pregnancy tests were administered, the count rose to 17, more than four times the previous year's total.

And then, on June 20 - one day after tween idol Jamie Lynn Spears had her baby - Time magazine hit the newsstand with a story about 17 young Gloucester girls (it would soon nudge up to 18) who had coordinated their efforts to get pregnant - a pact, the article called it. According to Joseph Sullivan, the school's Irish-Catholic principal, not only had these girls planned this, but they were so desperate that one contrived to get knocked up by a 24-year-old homeless guy.

Suddenly, the blue-collar town of 30,000 about 30 miles up the coast from Boston was under siege. Every major network hooked into the story. Media outlets from as far away as Japan trained their halogens on this once-proud fishing village - chasing its abundance of young-looking mothers around Friendly's and McDonald's.

Since then, a handful of the Gloucester 18 have denied the existence of a pregnancy pact. The others have gone underground, protected by their laconic New England neighbors, the school, and privacy laws. Still, people talk. Suddenly, Kyla Brown's pregnancy seems utterly devious. Kyla, some whisper, slept around with a whole slew of guys, intent on getting pregnant. Kyla, some say, is part of that pact.

"I was freakin' devastated, are you kidding me?" Kyla Brown, now 17 and eight months along, says on a recent evening when I ask her about the gossip. Perched on her porch next to her mother, Wendy, who is still sweaty from cleaning the tub, and flanked by two boxers on high alert, she wants to make sure that I know - that the world knows - she is not one of those girls.

While a storm thunders around the sky-blue porch hung with discount-store paper lanterns, Kyla insists it's not as if she tried. It's just that, like many of the 750,000 other American teens who get pregnant every year, she didn't try too hard not to.

"I did not want this," Kyla says, smoothing her highlighted hair and clunkily pulling her legs under a body stretched round. Then she rubs her belly, a dreamy smile floating across her young face. "He was a surprise." Kyla pinpoints the conception to an early-December night. "We didn't use anything," admits Kyla. Explains her mom, "It was one of those teenage things, like, It won't happen to me."

And abortion? "Never considered it. I always knew that I was going to keep him," Kyla says as her mother nods vigorously. She refuses to talk about the father, except to say that they're no longer together but he's planning on being in the baby's life.


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