Cult of Celebrity Pregnancy Ignores Teen Realities

Cynthia Greenlee

A "baby bump" is the season's must-have hot accessory -- unless you're a teen role-model-in-training.

All adolescent actresses looking for a career in Hollywood: If you want to be America's next teen sweetheart, don't get pregnant. You might just jeopardize your status as a role model-in-training. That's just the message the kids channel Nickelodeon will send if it indeed cancels "Zoey 101," the show featuring soon-to-be teen mom, Jamie Lynn Spears.

It's not clear whether Nickelodeon will nix the show, despite rumors of cancellation and a denial from the network itself.

But when it comes to media and its reactions or reports about pregnancy, you never know what the truth is: And as the new year rolled around, Nicole Kidman's publicist refuted yet another reported pregnancy, saying if all such "leaks" were true, Kidman would have had a brood of 30 by now. This week, however, sources "close to" Kidman are confirming there is indeed a baby on the way for the actress and her husband, Keith Urban.

I mention Kidman because the entertainment media have been stalking her for quite some time, looking for an evidence of the "baby bump," the season's must-have accessory – or at least it's the hot accessory if you're not a teen mother.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

A wide-eyed Jamie Lynn Spears stared out of the Dec. 31 cover of "OK!" magazine, in which she announced that she's pregnant at age 16. The teen actress's troubled gaze couldn't have been more different from the expressions of other pregnant celebrities gracing magazine covers at the same time. Food Network personality Giada De Laurentiis beamed on a "Redbook" cover that promised baby gossip. Singer Christina Aguilera's nude, heavily pregnant belly dominates the January "Marie Claire" in a riff off Demi Moore's 1991 "Vanity Fair" cover shot.

Photos of Shiloh Jolie Pitt, the "bio-baby" of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, raised money for charity. Paparazzi daily jostle for pictures of pregnant A-list actresses Jessica Alba, Jennifer Lopez and Halle Berry (a recent TMZ.com posting questioned whether Berry should be wearing high-heeled ankle boots in her "condition"). Hollywood has also recently been feeding its audiences a cinematic diet rich in baby talk, including films such as "Knocked Up" and "Waitress."

As celebrity mags and the silver screen continue to offer pregnancy pabulum, there are relatively few TV or movie storylines that tackle the weighty issue of teen pregnancy. Certainly, it's a difficult topic; early motherhood is associated with health problems in girls whose bodies have not matured sufficiently; shortened educations; and the likelihood that the young mothers and their children will be caught in a cycle of poverty.

But Jamie Lynn Spears is far from alone. More than 30 percent of U.S. women will get pregnant by age 20.

Yet art doesn't imitate life, as pregnant teens rarely make an appearance on television or in our multiplexes (recent release "Juno" is an entertaining exception).

When it comes to real-life pregnant teens in the entertainment business, the message is that they don't fit the mold of homespun, all-American celebritydom. Within hours of Jamie Lynn Spears's pregnancy hitting the news, Internet message boards were buzzing with fans who lamented that they thought Jamie Lynn was the "good sister," others who applauded the starlet's decision to "face up to her mistake" and keep her child, and those who demanded her immediate firing from Nickelodeon.

These controversies are starting to erupt with some regularity. In 2004, fans vociferously debated whether eventual "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino was role model material due to the fact that she gave birth to a child at 17. Once crowned, Barrino answered her critics by recording the single "Baby Mama," her anthem for mothers going it alone: "It's about time we had our own song/Don't know what took so long/'Cuz nowadays/ it's like a badge of honor/To be a baby mama/I see ya payin' ya bills/I see ya workin' ya job/ I see ya goin' to school/And, girl I know it's hard."

In late 2006, Oscar-nominated actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, 16, became persona non grata in some quarters when it was announced she was pregnant – just as she played the role of Mary in the film "The Nativity Story."

Pope Benedict didn't show at the world premiere at Vatican, reportedly because he disapproved of an unmarried pregnant girl playing Mary (who, in some versions of the founding story of Christianity, who was a pregnant adolescent not yet married to Joseph.) Neither did Castle-Hughes attend; her publicist later added that Castle-Hughes had a scheduling conflict but also wasn't sure how to deal with the controversy.

Television doesn't handle fictional teen pregnancy much better. Through collaborations with groups like the National Campaign to Prevent Adolescent and Unwanted Pregnancy, various networks have produced shows that include parents giving "the talk" or teen pregnancy scares. But few channels have created sustainable programming that follows teens through their sexual development and education, pregnancy and parenthood.

Two of those rare shows that showed the "life cycle" of teen pregnancy are no longer producing original episodes. ABC's "My Wife and Kids" followed the Kyles, an upwardly mobile African-American couple (played by Damon Wayans and Tisha Campbell) who are to become grandparents well before middle age. The culprits: their impossibly dumb son, Junior, and his girlfriend, Vanessa.

Though Junior's airheadedness was for laughs, the "Wife and Kids" scenario portrayed teen pregnancy and parenting in as clear and complex a way as any show today. We saw Junior's obsession with sex (without understanding the consequences), parenting classes, the sometimes tense relationships between the families, and discussions about whether teen parents should automatically opt for marriage (Al Sharpton played the counseling minister). Just as importantly, the outlook for Junior and Vanessa, while irrevocably changed by the birth of their son, was not all the doom and gloom commonly predicted for teen parents.

In the now-defunct show, "Reba," the country music star played the de facto babysitter to her grandchild, the person who buys the diapers – when her son-in-law's pizza delivery job won't stretch far enough, and the tough-loving landlord when the newlyweds/new parents can't afford a place on their own. Comedy aside, "Reba" (originally on the WB network) illustrated the seeming paradox that teen parents need both constant support and the chance to be independent.

They also don't need to be are arbitrarily exiled to a "no-man's land" of underachievement. Volumes of evidence and studies seem to confirm the overwhelmingly negative outcomes of teen parenthood and confirm them so strongly that it feels almost heretical to ask if teen pregnancy has to be talked about like a form of societal suicide, by which all a girl's life opportunities die sudden deaths. But I've seen teen mothers who,yes, struggled, but maintained their dignity and their ambition despite the challenges and the stigma.

The negativity surrounding teen or unwanted pregnancy is in marked contrast to the overwrought, overexposed reporting on celebrity maternity. Perhaps it's just societal bias in favor of the "beautiful people" or the people whom we feel are best equipped to raise children, meaning those with enough money, education or prestige.

But it's no certainty Halle Berry's baby will have a more stable family unit than Jamie Lynn's child; Berry has been through two failed marriages. There's no guarantee that Berry and her "baby daddy," model Gabriel Aubry – or any two persons united by a common child — will be good co-parents or life partners. Marriage, maternal urges and all the money that can buy child care, good advice and designer onesies didn't stop Britney Spears from driving around in her convertible with her toddler sitting in her lap.

Replays of "Carseatgate" were in heavy rotation in 2006, and to their credit, television tabloids and news shows alike capitalized on the teachable moment to drive home the danger of not properly restraining a child in a car.

Yet, what would have happened if just a fraction of the minutes and all the ink devoted to that controversy about parental responsibility would have been spent on talking about teen pregnancy? Far too often, teen pregnancy occurs largely off-screen. And when it is written into the scripts, it rarely comes close to examining the actual challenges that young parents must face.

Take the example of "Hex," a racy 2005 BBC miniseries that was later imported stateside. Cassie, a shy English boarding-school student, finds a mysterious vessel and, abracadabra, she's pursued (read: stalked) by a darkly handsome, thirtysomething stranger who happens to be a demon named Azazeal. Under his spell, the one-time wallflower becomes a sexual dynamo and conceives a child who will, like Rosemary's baby, wreck havoc on the mortal world. The unintended message of this fantasy is that teen pregnancy is dangerous and has the potential to turn society on its head.

Yet, it doesn't have to be that way. Media, schools and parents can communicate to youth that they can prevent pregnancy – assuming they are not discouraged from doing so by abstinence-only policies or our own discomfort. Television, film and journalism can do their part by not overidealizing celebrity pregnancy, rendering teenage pregnancy invisible or silencing pregnant teen entertainers.

Perhaps Nickelodeon, home to "Zoey 101," will help lead the way by keeping Jamie Lynn on the air. The network also confirmed that it is discussing the possibility of a Linda Ellerbee-hosted forum on what teens think about sex, love and all that comes with them. Could there also be an episode about sex education in the boarding school that's the setting of "Zoey 101"? Parents of the kids' network's viewers would probably revolt (even on "My Wife and Kids," the mother of a young cast member protested when her child's character would have a pregnant teen friend). So I guess there's no chance of "Zoey" bringing her infant to school in a Snugli.

But it's clear that at least one of Nickelodeon's teen sweethearts needed help communicating about sexuality. We don't know if Jamie Lynn was using birth control, whether the condom broke or why she was so surprised about her pregnancy. However, we do know – thanks to her "OK!" interview, allegedly conducted for a $1 million fee – that when Jamie Lynn told her mother she was pregnant, she resorted to an old elementary-school method (before the days of texting): She passed her a note.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

Analysis Law and Policy

Indiana Court of Appeals Tosses Patel Feticide Conviction, Still Defers to Junk Science

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled patients cannot be prosecuted for self-inducing an abortion under the feticide statute, but left open the possibility other criminal charges could apply.

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday vacated the feticide conviction of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who faced 20 years in prison for what state attorneys argued was a self-induced abortion. The good news is the court decided Patel and others in the state could not be charged and convicted for feticide after experiencing failed pregnancies. The bad news is that the court still deferred to junk science at trial that claimed Patel’s fetus was on the cusp of viability and had taken a breath outside the womb, and largely upheld Patel’s conviction of felony neglect of a dependent. This leaves the door open for similar prosecutions in the state in the future.

As Rewire previously reported, “In July 2013 … Purvi Patel sought treatment at a hospital emergency room for heavy vaginal bleeding, telling doctors she’d had a miscarriage. That set off a chain of events, which eventually led to a jury convicting Patel of one count of feticide and one count of felony neglect of a dependent in February 2015.”

To charge Patel with feticide under Indiana’s law, the state at trial was required to prove she “knowingly or intentionally” terminated her pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.”

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, attorneys for the State of Indiana failed to show the legislature had originally passed the feticide statute with the intention of criminally charging patients like Patel for terminating their own pregnancies. Patel’s case, the court said, marked an “abrupt departure” from the normal course of prosecutions under the statute.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“This is the first case that we are aware of in which the State has used the feticide statute to prosecute a pregnant woman (or anyone else) for performing an illegal abortion, as that term is commonly understood,” the decision reads. “[T]he wording of the statute as a whole indicate[s] that the legislature intended for any criminal liability to be imposed on medical personnel, not on women who perform their own abortions,” the court continued.

“[W]e conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women in the first place,” it said.

This is an important holding, because Patel was not actually the first woman Indiana prosecutors tried to jail for a failed pregnancy outcome. In 2011, state prosecutors brought an attempted feticide charge against Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from depression who tried to commit suicide. She survived, but the fetus did not.

Shuai was held in prison for a year until a plea agreement was reached in her case.

The Indiana Court of Appeals did not throw out Patel’s conviction entirely, though. Instead, it vacated Patel’s second charge of Class A felony conviction of neglect of a dependent, ruling Patel should have been charged and convicted of a lower Class D felony. The court remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment against Patel for conviction of a Class D felony neglect of a dependent, and to re-sentence Patel accordingly to that drop in classification.

A Class D felony conviction in Indiana carries with it a sentence of six months to three years.

To support Patel’s second charge of felony neglect at trial, prosecutors needed to show that Patel took abortifacients; that she delivered a viable fetus; that said viable fetus was, in fact, born alive; and that Patel abandoned the fetus. According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state got close, but not all the way, to meeting this burden.

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state had presented enough evidence to establish “that the baby took at least one breath and that its heart was beating after delivery and continued to beat until all of its blood had drained out of its body.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded, it was reasonable for the jury to infer that Patel knowingly neglected the fetus after delivery by failing to provide medical care after its birth. The remaining question, according to the court, was what degree of a felony Patel should have been charged with and convicted of.

That is where the State of Indiana fell short on its neglect of a dependent conviction, the court said. Attorneys had failed to sufficiently show that any medical care Patel could have provided would have resulted in the fetus surviving after birth. Without that evidence, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded, state attorneys could not support a Class A conviction. The evidence they presented, though, could support a Class D felony conviction, the court said.

In other words, the Indiana Court of Appeals told prosecutors in the state, make sure your medical experts offer more specific testimony next time you bring a charge like the one at issue in Patel’s case.

The decision is a mixed win for reproductive rights and justice advocates. The ruling from the court that the feticide statute cannot be used to prosecute patients for terminating their own pregnancy is an important victory, especially in a state that has sought not just to curb access to abortion, but to eradicate family planning and reproductive health services almost entirely. Friday’s decision made it clear to prosecutors that they cannot rely on the state’s feticide statute to punish patients who turn to desperate measures to end their pregnancies. This is a critical pushback against the full-scale erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy in the state.

But the fact remains that at both trial and appeal, the court and jury largely accepted the conclusions of the state’s medical experts that Patel delivered a live baby that, at least for a moment, was capable of survival outside the womb. And that is troubling. The state’s experts offered these conclusions, despite existing contradictions on key points of evidence such as the gestational age of the fetus—and thus if it was viable—and whether or not the fetus displayed evidence of life when it was born.

Patel’s attorneys tried, unsuccessfully, to rebut those conclusions. For example, the state’s medical expert used the “lung float test,” also known as the hydrostatic test, to conclude Patel’s fetus had taken a breath outside the womb. The test, developed in the 17th century, posits that if a fetus’ lungs are removed and placed in a container of liquid and the lungs float, it means the fetus drew at least one breath of air before dying. If the lungs sink, the theory holds, the fetus did not take a breath.

Not surprisingly, medical forensics has advanced since the 17th century, and medical researchers widely question the hydrostatic test’s reliability. Yet this is the only medical evidence the state presented of live birth.

Ultimately, the fact that the jury decided to accept the conclusions of the state’s experts over Patel’s is itself not shocking. Weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion of guilt or innocence based on that evidence is what juries do. But it does suggest that when women of color are dragged before a court for a failed pregnancy, they will rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt.

The jurors could have just as easily believed the evidence put forward by Patel’s attorneys that gestational age, and thus viability, was in doubt, but they didn’t. The jurors could have just as easily concluded the state’s medical testimony that the fetus took “at least one breath” was not sufficient to support convicting Patel of a felony and sending her to prison for 20 years. But they didn’t.

Why was the State of Indiana so intent on criminally prosecuting Patel, despite the many glaring weaknesses in the case against her? Why were the jurors so willing to take the State of Indiana’s word over Patel’s when presented with those weaknesses? And why did it take them less than five hours to convict her?

Patel was ordered in March to serve 20 years in prison for her conviction. Friday’s decision upends that; Patel now faces a sentence of six months to three years. She’s been in jail serving her 20 year sentence since February 2015 while her appeal moved forward. If there’s real justice in this case, Patel will be released immediately.