Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why such a downer on teenage pregnancy?

Page last updated at 12:29 GMT, Wednesday, 3 September 2008 13:29 UK

Why such a downer on teenage pregnancy?

Pregnancy test

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

News that the daughter of the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is expecting a child at 17 has again focused the spotlight on teenage pregnancy. But why do we have such a problem with it?

A teenager expecting a baby is a bad thing. Or so you would believe if you ever read the news.

It is proclaimed that the UK's rate of pregnancies in females aged 15-19 makes it the "worst" in Europe.

Teenage pregnancies are rising; so are drunkenness, sexual offences and crimes of sadism
Sir Keith Joseph, 1974

This is certainly the government's view. The stated goal of its Teenage Pregnancy Strategy is to "halve the under-18 conception rate by 2010, and establish a firm downward trend in the under-16 rate".

With under-16s it's easy to see the reasoning - the age of consent is 16, compulsory schooling runs until 16. But for those over the age of 16, but under the age of 18, or even 20, is it still a social ill?

The first curious thing about the issue of teenage pregnancy is that many people do not have a handle on the numbers.

Stats confusion

"People massively overestimate the numbers of people who get pregnant when they are very young. When people believe it is a bigger problem than it is then their response will be more polemical or however you want to describe it," says Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, a charity which offers young people sexual health advice.

Kizzy, a pregnant 13-year-old
Kizzy, who allowed BBC cameras to follow her pregnancy aged 13

Victoria Gillick, a "pro-life pregnancy counsellor" who found fame in the 1980s while fighting for the right to be told if her teenage daughter was prescribed the Pill, often asks people how many girls under the age of 16 get pregnant every year. She is told figures that are dramatically in excess of the real stats.

"In only one year, 1990, has it ever reached 1%," she tells them.

Many people might be under the impression that teenage pregnancies are rocketing. But over the past 10 years they have been falling in England. In 1998, the figure was 46.6 conceptions per thousand girls aged 15-17. In 2006 it was 40.4.

For 13-15 year olds, numbers are also falling. In 1998, there were 8.8 conceptions per thousand girls. In 2006, there were 7.7.

But it is still a pervasive issue in the media and in popular culture, with representations as varied as the positive spin of the recent movie Juno, to the now notorious Vicky Pollard of Little Britain.

Michelle's baby

And we've taken a dim view of teenage pregnancy for some decades.

Michelle Fowler with baby Vikki

Conservative politician Sir Keith Joseph spoke of the fears of many when he said in 1974: "Teenage pregnancies are rising; so are drunkenness, sexual offences and crimes of sadism."

In the 1980s, an EastEnders storyline that featured the 16-year-old Michelle Fowler becoming pregnant caused national debate.

The fear is that teenage pregnancies are symptomatic of a wider breakdown in society, the crumbling of stable families and the institution of marriage.

Ms Gillick says attitudes have changed since the 50s as perceptions of the relationship backgrounds of pregnant teenagers has changed.

"There was no outcry about 18-19 year olds getting pregnant in the 1950s because they were married. It is if they are unmarried that they become a burden, and the mother and child are very vulnerable."

The economics of teenage parenthood are a major factor in the eyes of the public.

If you go to different parts of the country, you will see generations of teenage parenthood - it wouldn't be considered a problem
Simon Blake, Brook

"We know lower socio-economic women are more likely to get pregnant early and go on to have the baby," says Mr Blake.

"The life chances in terms of social exclusion - and for the children - are poorer than those who are not teenage parents."

As well as purely economic factors, groups such as children in care and those from unstable homes are vastly disproportionately represented.

Knowing the economic difficulties of teenage parents, it is easy to think in terms of increased benefits budgets.

And Britons are having babies later. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1977, women aged 25-29 were twice as likely to give birth as women aged 30-34. By 2007, women aged between 30 and 34 had the highest fertility of any of the age groupings.

Delayed parenthood

In more ancient times, when lifespans were shorter, marriage and children often happened much earlier. But we have long got used, in the industrial age, to birth happening later.

Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston
Weight of expectation: Bristol Palin and boyfriend Levi Johnston

"Most European countries have married late and started families much later," says Ms Gillick.

Taking the figures for England of all the births, in 1938 4% were to mothers under the age of 20. In 2004 the figure was 7.1% - higher, but still well down on the late 60s, when more than 10% of births were to mothers under 20.

But our continued concern comes at the same time as a general feeling of worry about the demographic problems of an ageing population. The UK's birth rate has been rising in the past half decade, and is considerably higher than many other Western nations, but we are still becoming a greyer nation.

For the first time, those over the age of 60 now outnumber under-18s. It's yet to be seriously advocated that we should stop discouraging those who are 16 and older from having children, but it's not beyond the realms of possibility.

"If you go to different parts of the country, you will see generations of teenage parenthood - culturally it wouldn't be considered a problem," says Mr Blake.

"That is not to say they can't be good parents. The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy says, when supported, teenage parents can be very good parents."

And this support is preferably offered by stable loving families, says Sally Gimson, of the Family and Parenting Institute.

"If you come from a family where you don't talk to your family or where your family has broken down; if you haven't done well at school and have got pregnant as a response to that, that is when your circumstances and the baby's may have more difficulties. If you have a supportive family, life may be fine."

Hateful looks

Another factor is our view of teenagers having sex, even over the age of consent.

Teenage mothers
Good support makes a good parent

Jenny Billings, a research fellow at University of Kent's Centre for Health Services Studies, has carried out a study among 4,000 15 and 16 year olds across the county.

"It's because we don't like the thought of kids having sex. There's almost an entrenched cultural stumbling block that spills over into how parents talk to their children."

And so pregnant teenagers receive negative reactions, she says.

"The initial response was one of horror and shame and it made the kids feel terrible. They meet prejudice on every single corner. Going down the road looking pregnant, people looking at them in a hateful way.

"They are seen as feckless and promiscuous when all it is is kids that are brought into the teenage world under-prepared and incredibly ignorant. We let them watch it on television but we don't talk about it."

She objects to the way teenage pregnancy has been "problematised".

This tends to scoop all teenagers into the same pot, as though a 19-year-old is the same as a 17-year-old, and that either are comparable to a 15-year-old or a 13-year-old.

"A 13-year-old is a very different girl from a 19-year-old - one is on the brink of womanhood," says Ms Gillick.

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