This month we learned that teen birth rates are on the rise for the first time since 1991.While this alarming statistical shift should inspire concern or anger or action, it has received little more than wary acknowledgment from any of the 2008 presidential hopefuls (on either side of the aisle), and has gotten little more than passing attention from the mainstream news media.
Not so for art. Juno, one of the hottest films to come off of the festival circuit this year, looks squarely at this increasingly common teen reality: young, pregnant, and more than a little confused. While definitely flawed (one especially anti-feminist line made my jaw drop, and Juno as a modern feminist heroine is a whole other post), what is and isn't in this film can teach us a lot about why the rates are rising - and what we can do about it.
Quick summary: Juno and her best guy friend have sex, resulting in pregnancy. Juno figures that a high school student who talks on a hamburger phone is probably not ready to be a mother, so she embarks on exploring her other options. After a badly handled look at abortion, she sets her sights on providing middle class comfort to the baby to be by placing him/her with Mark and Vanessa, a yuppie couple that will do and pay anything to adopt a child. Everyone and everything is a bit more complicated at second glance, which keeps this comedy honest and on track.
Juno's journey, of course, starts with sex. While the word condom is never mentioned, it seems obvious from Juno's expanding belly that she and Bleeker didn't use one, or any other method of contraception. Juno's sex education, or lack of it, is relegated to a single shot of a middle-aged woman putting a blue condom on a banana, with a voice over expressing Juno's annoyance at the term "sexually active". The omission of any discussion about condoms or safer sex shouldn't seem odd, however, considering most teens in the United States are barred from discussing these issues in their health classes.
Obviously, or so it seems, the rising teen birth rates are related to astronomical increases in funding for abstinence-only programs that continue despite mounting evidence that not only do these programs not work at all, they also present medically inaccurate, biased information, including exaggerated condom failure rates and stereotype tinged portrayals of relations between the genders.
Inexplicably, the democratically controlled House has offered a funding increase for these programs to the tune of over a hundred million dollars, perhaps hoping to trade teen health for something more valuable politically. It is also, by the way, not like there are no other options: the Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act would provide the first ever federal funds for comprehensive sex education curricula that would cover abstinence, contraception, relationships, and responsible decision making.
While it is hard to know if a fictional character like Juno could have avoided her situation had she been taught the facts in health class, it's easy to see we are making getting information as hard as possible for her real life counterparts.
Already pregnant, Juno decides to, in her words, "procure a hasty abortion". She makes an appointment, choosing the clinic that does not require a parent's signature. Lesson number two: while Juno is presumably lucky enough to live in one of the 17 states that does not require parental notification or consent and one of the 13% of counties that has a provider, many young women are stopped at this point in the process. Political maneuvering to chip away at the right to abortion has left many young women without options, which has contributed not only to the rise in the teen birth rate but also driven some desperate young women and their partners to turn to dangerous "black market" abortions or to attempt to end the pregnancy themselves, often with tragic results.
Juno makes it to the clinic only to be met with a protest sign wielded by a classmate. While the sign is tame and even humorous compared to some I have seen, Juno is unnerved enough to decide to leave the clinic before even talking to anyone but the receptionist. Because the plot hinges on getting to the adoption option, the viewer is never asked to consider what it means to be frightened away from receiving medical care. You, blog reader, are not so unfortunate.
Anti-choice protesters often set up camp outside family planning clinics and young women especially are deterred from entering. Protesters are now employing even more intimidating tactics, like taking pictures of patient and employee license plates to post on the Internet. And clinic violence is not a thing of the past: a New Mexico clinic went up in flames last week as a result of arson. Obviously, if women are too scared to go inside the clinic, they can never reach the information and services inside. That, sadly, is the point.
As she enters her latter months of pregnancy, Juno wryly declares herself a "cautionary whale". So, take heed: while it all seems to turn out alright for Juno, a stylized, albeit lovable Hollywood character, not all teen moms to be can be content with knowing that happy endings are in vogue. Teen birth rates, as well as rates of sexually transmitted diseases, will continue to rise if we don't give young people responsible, medically accurate sex education and young women continue to be denied and frightened away from reproductive health care.