From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
750,000
GIRLS AGES 15-19 GET PREGNANT EACH YEAR

KATY MACDONALD
PREGNANT AT 16

SHAVON BOURGAULT
PREGNANT AT 17

ASHLEY WILKENS
PREGNANT AT 16

While most Americans gasped at news that 16-year-old Jamie Lynn Spears is pregnant, some 750,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19 had a different response: me too. "What Jamie Lynn, in part, has helped people understand: This problem happens to everybody, including the 'good girl,'" says Bill Albert, deputy director of the nonprofit National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In fact, after a 14-year decline (from a historic high in 1991), the teen birth rate was up 3 percent in 2006. Experts differ as to why, speculating on everything from a sexually permissive culture to a federal government push for abstinence-only sex education, which last year got $176 million in funding; states that receive funds are banned from discussing the potential benefits of contraception. Albert, however, says, "There is no strong evidence that abstinence-only programs affect teen sexual behavior."

Everyone, however, agrees on this: A teenager is no match for the rigors of parenthood. Just like Jamie Lynn, more than half of pregnant teens today choose to become parents (roughly one-third terminate their pregnancies; 2 percent make an adoption plan and about 14 percent miscarry). And as every parent knows, the challenges really begin once the baby is born. Only one-third of teen moms ever finish high school.

What is it like to be a real-life pregnant teen in 2008? Here, six stories about the all-too-grown-up realities of an unplanned pregnancy.

THE JAMIE LYNN FACTOR

In her hometown of Kentwood, La., Jamie Lynn Spears "is just one of many pregnant teenagers down here," laments Ginger Francois, principal of Kentwood High School. "For girls her age, getting pregnant is the in thing to do. There's no shame." So what's next for Jamie Lynn? No longer under contract with Nickelodeon, she is not expected to promote the final season of Zoey 101, which airs next month. As for her future with her baby's father, Casey Aldridge, 18, rumors swirl that he also dated Whitney Seals, 18, of Magnolia, Miss., in recent months. (Seals denies a romance to PEOPLE: "We're just friends.") While a Spears pal says the parents-to-be talked by phone over the holidays, one of Aldridge's cousins says, "No one is happy that he's getting involved in all of this. The Spears family is not what you would call stable. Now that there's a baby involved, he can't break up with her. And he probably doesn't want to."

GIVING UP HER BABY
ASHLEY WILKENS, 17

51% OF PREGNANT TEENS KEEP THEIR BABIES

Discovering she was pregnant at 16, Indianapolis teen Ashley Wilkens felt utterly alone. "It was," she says, "like me against the world."

With no support from the baby's father, Ashley dropped out of high school, moved in with a friend and contacted an adoption attorney. Perusing profiles of childless couples, she was struck by one story that "touched my heart deeply." The adoptive couple paid for Ashley's living and medical expenses during pregnancy and provided emotional support. On March 28 Ashley delivered a baby boy, then relinquished her rights—to her mother Taunia Bowman's dismay. "It had a devastating effect on our family," Bowman says. "I would have raised that baby." (Ashley has no contact with her own father, from whom Bowman is divorced.) But Ashley has no regrets. "I show pictures of [the baby] to people and they say, 'Oh, I am so sorry,'" says the former track-team member, who is working toward her GED and considering a Naval career. "And I say, 'No, I'm so proud of myself.'"

DANGEROUS COMPLICATIONS
AMBRIA BRANCH, 19

Two months into eighth grade, Ambria Branch learned she was pregnant—and soon became a social outcast at her St. Louis school. Except for her teachers and two friends, "everyone turned their backs on me." Yet Ambria never wavered. "I wanted," she says, "to keep the baby."

It only got tougher from there. By the seventh month, Ambria faced complications: Diagnosed with preeclampsia—a potentially life-threatening condition in which the blood pressure spikes—she spent a month in the hospital. Oddly, that's when her life began to even out. James Smith, then a ninth grader and the baby's father, visited regularly. Teachers arranged for homework to be delivered. A month before Ambria's due date, doctors induced labor; she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Two months later, she returned to middle school to graduate with her class.

Today, Ambria juggles college courses with a night job at Amber's childcare center. Ambria and her mom, with whom she lives, divide Amber's care. James, no longer her boyfriend, takes Amber, now 4, some weekends. "I settled down—I had a child," says James, now 20 and a retail clerk. And Ambria? She can't imagine life without Amber: "I love everything about her."

DENIAL, THEN A PLAN
ADA ZELAYA, 18

It had been two months—and two missed periods—since Ada Zelaya had "spur-of-the-moment" unprotected sex with her longtime boyfriend, 27-year-old William Montiel. The Washington, D.C., high school senior "didn't want to accept" that she was pregnant, she says, but a test at a nearby clinic confirmed her fears. "The first words out of my mouth were, 'I'm only 17, what am I going to do?'" says Ada. "I just started crying."

She decided to keep the baby—but faced harsh consequences. "I knew my mom would get really mad at me, and she did," Ada says. The teen moved in with her aunt, kept up her studies and even continued getting A's and B's.

On Sept. 9, three months after she graduated, Ada, with William by her side, gave birth to son Bryan Omar. Planning to start college this summer, she's working in a bakery to earn cash and living with William's sister, declining for now his offer to move in with him. "Bryan," she says, "is my main priority."

MORNING SICKNESS IN MATH CLASS
SHAINA JONES, 16

For Shaina Jones the gifts under her family's Christmas tree became a sobering reality check: "There were all these presents," says the Fort Worth teen, seven months pregnant with a girl, "but none for me. I was kinda sad. It's not about me anymore."

Four months into her relationship with fellow track runner Kolton Franklin, 18, Shaina learned she was expecting. Kolton was scared: "I didn't know how I was going to raise a family."

So they're figuring it out. Sharing a house owned by Kolton's mother, Kolton works for FedEx and studies construction management at a nearby college while Shaina forges ahead with her junior year of high school, despite morning sickness. "I've thrown up in math class and the cafeteria," she says. Next semester, she'll transfer to a school for teen moms; she hopes to get her baby—whom she plans to name Khalie—into the daycare center there while working toward a cosmetology degree.

"I don't think it's sunk in to her yet," Shaina's mom, Denise, says. "Shaina has the potential to be whatever she wants—but this will slow her down. She's going to have a long road."

GIVING BIRTH ON GRADUATION DAY
SHAVON BOURGAULT, 18

66% OF TEEN MOMS DROP OUT OF SCHOOL

Shavon Bourgault had been seeing her boyfriend for a year when she fell behind in taking the pill. "I was like, 'Forget it,'" she says. "Being young, you don't think, 'A month from now, I'll be pregnant.'"

But by the fall of 2006 that's exactly what she was. "We knew," Shavon says, "our lives were going to change." On June 1—the day the avid art student had planned to attend her high school graduation—she went into labor and delivered a daughter, Felicity Anastasia. "She was so pretty," Shavon says.

Soon afterward, her boyfriend, Philip Hardy, 22, an assistant grocery store manager, moved Shavon and their baby into his Fitchburg, Mass., apartment. There, the couple have exchanged pool and bowling outings with friends for middle-of-the-night feedings; they recently managed a date night, to see Superbad. In October Shavon completed a monthlong course to become a nail technician. "If I want to do something that requires college, I'll do it when I can put Felicity in daycare," says Shavon. "Right now, I'm content."

DREAMS ON HOLD
KATY MACDONALD, 16

Not long ago 11th grader Katy Macdonald was a straight-A student with four AP classes and dreams of becoming a doctor. Not anymore. Since learning last August that she's pregnant, Katy, 16, of Derwood, Md., has dropped her AP courses so she can attend school half-time and work the cash register at a Giant grocery store. Every paycheck goes into the bank account she's opened to handle baby expenses. "I've had to grow up almost overnight," Katy says. Ignoring the advice of the adults in her life, Katy opted against abortion or adoption. Her new plan: graduate high school with her class and attend community college. She hopes the father of her baby, Anthony Esteves, 14, whom she met in Florida last winter while visiting her own dad, will move into the bottom floor of her mom Libby's house. Anthony, who remains in school but has traded in baseball and basketball practice for a part-time job at Wendy's, says, "I'm more happy than disappointed. I have a purpose." Libby, 51, a school food inspector, says she's "still in shock" but trying to look on the bright side. Recently, she says, she put her hand on her daughter's growing belly. "I felt two little kicks. That kind of put a smile on my face. The damage is done. What they need now is support."

FOR MORE INFORMATION www.americanpregnancy.org: promotes wellness during pregnancy and suggests resources for prenatal care; www.childwelfare.gov: information and advice on adoption; www.plannedparenthood.org: health centers offer gynecological care, pregnancy testing, abortion services.

  • Contributors:
  • With Nina Burleigh,
  • Darla Atlas,
  • Anne Lang,
  • Wendy Grossman,
  • Steve Helling,
  • Ruth Laney,
  • Alyssa Shelasky.