Commentary

Saunders: Women report virgin births, though not the divine kind

bsaunders@newsobserver.comDecember 22, 2013 

Virgin births?

So far as we know, there’s only been one of those, 2,000 years ago, and we’re fixing to celebrate that one in two days.

If you believe a few dozen women who participated in a study conducted by UNC-Chapel Hill and published in the British Medical Journal, they, too, became pregnant without having known – that’s Bible talk for “having sex with” – a man or without artificial insemination.

Hmm. That could be trouble if they ever go to court to establish paternity and nobody’s DNA matches.

Chill, homes. Before y’all go accusing me of blaspheming, none of the women who claimed to have conceived immaculately also claimed divinity for their offspring. There is no evidence that any of them even went on “The Jerry Springer Show” or “Maury” to boast of their supposedly unique pregnancies.

Not only have they not sought the spotlight – would you? – but Professor Ann Herring of UNC’s Department of Biostatistics at the Gillings School of Global Public Health said their claims were discovered by accident.

“We certainly weren’t looking for virgin pregnancies,” Herring wrote in response to written questions I submitted to her after hearing of the “virgin-birth” phenomenon she’d turned up.

“While analyzing data” about virginity in adulthood, she said, “we were surprised to discover that a number of these individuals who stated they were virgins also reported pregnancies. My first thought was that we had made a programming error. Once we confirmed these were not mistakes on our end, we became interested in understanding factors related to this type of response pattern.”

The study – the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health – was begun in 1994 and followed adolescents then in grades 7 to 12 through 2008, when they were between 28 and 32 years old.

“Of 7,870 women, 5,340 reported a pregnancy,” Herring said, “and 45 of these women ... consistently affirmed their status as virgins.”

I asked the Rev. J. Vincent Terry, my childhood friend and pastor of Mt. Peace Baptist Church in Raleigh, if the virgin birth was a cornerstone – the other being Christ’s resurrection – of Christian belief.

“I believe it is important among conservative Christians, those of us who take the Bible literally,” he said. “It is not universally accepted that Mary was a virgin. Most of us do believe it.”

I told the Rev. Terry that I – someone who attended Bible college for a week back when I thought I heard a voice calling unto me – was ashamed to be ignorant of this, “but how did Joseph respond when his virgin wife told him she was with child?”

“He had a problem,” Terry said.

Who wouldn’t?

“He thought it might’ve been another man” until an angel appeared and explained the situation, he told me.

Was there any common trait among the women in the study who reported virgin pregnancies? I asked Herring.

“Women whose reports were consistent with virgin pregnancy were more likely than other virgins to report having signed chastity pledges” – in which females vow to remain chaste until marriage, she said – “and were also more likely than other virgins to have parents whose responses indicated lower levels of communication regarding sex and birth control.”

What? You mean their parents didn’t talk to them about S-E-X?

Who’d have thought that?

Herring said that for both sets of women – those claiming virginity and those who didn’t – “about 80 percent of the pregnancies resulted in a live birth. This is consistent with the other literature on pregnancy loss.”

“Although the study used carefully-designed questions and state of the art computer-assisted self-interview technology, self reported measures of potentially sensitive topics are subject to some degree of respondent bias,” she said. She also cited “a reticence on the part of some participants to admit” they’d had intercourse.

To break it down further, people have been known to lie.

“Incidentally,” Herring said, further blowing my mind, “this type of reporting was not limited to women in the study. There are a few apparent virgin fathers lurking about in the data as well.”

I saw a guy who claimed to be one of those once. He was in child support court. The judge didn’t buy it, though.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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