When did 14 become part of adulthood? In many ways, young teens are large children, and as the pregnant 14-year-old character on “Grey’s Anatomy” dramatized last Thursday, they can make seriously lousy life choices.
Jenny—not yet mature enough to be called Jen—finds her way to the emergency room at Seattle’s Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital. She complains of abdominal pain while sneezing and coughing. This sounds strange to Dr. April Kepner, who agrees to do a physical exam. It is only when Jenny unzips her sweatshirt that she acknowledges her visible pregnancy, leading more directly to a diagnosis.
Jenny’s mother suddenly arrives, having tracked Jenny’s mid-school day whereabouts via cell phone app. Afraid that her mother will lecture, “This is not what we do,” Jenny makes April promise not to tell her mother about the pregnancy. Without hesitating, April agrees. She even goes so far as to introduce Dr. Arizona Robbins, a fetal medicine specialist, to Jenny’s mother as “an abdominal doctor.”
Keeping Parents in the Dark
This set-up is attention grabbing, but three narrative threads that follow may unnerve parents. First, Jenny’s medical issue calls for surgery, but she declines it, lest her mother learn about her pregnancy. April and Arizona debate what they can, and should, tell Jenny’s mother. Arizona admonishes April that Jenny is their patient, and that they cannot legally tell Jenny’s mother that her child is pregnant.
On that note, Sex, Etc., a website that markets itself as “by teens, for teens,” tells Washington residents: “All visits to Title X clinics are confidential for teens and adults. They will not share your records with your parents or your family doctor (or anyone else) without your permission.”
That message presumably reassures teenagers, who might otherwise avoid all medical care, but it is also problematic. We don’t let 14-year-olds drive, buy cigarettes, or vote, so why should these girls make decisions about pregnancy without parental guidance? Granted, any teenager who finds herself in this situation likely has a fraught relationship with her parent(s) or guardian(s), but purposely misleading or withholding relevant health information from a parent or other trusted adult, who cares enough to show up, seems like a recipe for trouble.
Thankfully, Jenny’s situation isn’t so common among real American teens. The Center for Disease Control’s statistics for teen pregnancy only start counting young mothers at age 15. Further, pregnancies among 15-17-year-olds, the younger subset of teen mothers in the CDC’s data, dropped 11 percent in 2014.
Angry Parents Are the Least of Girls’ Worries
April recognizes something is amiss in Jenny’s situation and wants to redress it. However, she noticeably never presses Jenny about a second major concern: the identity of Jenny’s boyfriend. Yes, this was one of several storylines and Jenny’s not a recurring character, but the writers ignored some of the most vital questions that a concerned adult might have raised at this point.
For example, who is this boyfriend? How old is he, and was Jenny coerced or raped? Also, where is he, and does he even know Jenny’s pregnant? Viewers learned the answers to none of these questions.
The third troubling piece was the largely ignored matter of Jenny’s baby’s future. Everyone proceeds as if it is obvious that Jenny will keep her baby. No one ever expressly asks this 14-year-old, who has done zero prenatal care to date, whether she intends to keep her child.
Given “Grey’s Anatomy’s” tendency to portray abortion in a positive light, it was striking that no doctor mentioned it to Jenny. On the flip side, no one ever asked Jenny whether she would consider giving her baby up for adoption. Why? Jenny and her (seemingly single) mother, who also became a mother at 14, may decide it’s wisest to move beyond their antagonistic relationship and raise this child together. However, adoption would still have been a logical and compassionate question for April to raise.
Motherhood is a gift. It should be cherished. But it’s also radically life-altering and something a woman should feel ready to accept. A 14-year-old is not yet mature enough to be called a woman, let alone handle the challenges of motherhood.
No 14-year-old should ever have to make adult decisions like Jenny initially did, especially not alone, because as grown up as teenagers may insist they are, deep down, they’re not ready to be adults. If we’re doing our jobs as parents, we shouldn’t ask them to be.