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 Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 15:28 GMT
'Virginity' target for NI teens
Young couple kissing
The government wants to cut teenage pregnancies
Three-quarters of teenagers in Northern Ireland should still be virgins at 16, the government has said.

The target is included in a strategy document aimed at reducing teenage pregnancies and improving sexual health.

There is no such target in the English sexual health strategy.

Experts are divided over whether such "abstinence policies" work.

In Northern Ireland, 1,700 teenagers give birth each year, one of the highest rates in Europe.

It's not my place to impose moral values

Dr George O'Neill, Belfast GP
The five-year Teenage Pregnancy and Parenthood Strategy and Action Plan was published by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

It says the time of a teenager's first sexual intercourse can be delayed by good sex education and communication within families.

Advice

A spokesman for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety told BBC News Online: "We have to help teenagers understand and avoid the risks of underage, unprotected, uninformed sex.

"The strategy and action plan recently issued sets a number of targets and includes actions in relation to providing information, user friendly services and stresses the importance of communication with young people.

"It does not in any way intend to impose moral values on young people. What it does aim to do is equip young people with the knowledge and skills to make responsible decisions regarding their sexual activity."

Simon Blake, an assistant director of the National Children's Bureau, said "most sensible adults" did not want young people to have sex before they could enjoy it and take responsibility for it.

He added: "But all the research shows that if you have stopping young people having sex as an explicit goal, it doesn't actually work.

"It's been proved time and time again."

But a spokesman for the Civitas think-tank said: "We are in favour of abstinence policies, because if you're trying to bring down teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, that's the only way you're going to do it."

But GPs have expressed concerns that they could be asked to "police" teenagers.

Belfast GP Dr George O'Neill told Doctor magazine: "It's not my place to impose moral values.

"We can advise people but they have a right to make their own decisions."

It does not in any way intend to impose moral values on young people.

Department of Health spokesman

Role

A recent survey by Northern Ireland's Family Planning Association (FPA) found that just over half of under 25s had been sexually active.

Audrey Simpson, director of the Northern Ireland FPA, told BBC News Online she backed the 75% target: "I think this is quite ambitious, but it is achievable.

"I think GPs will have a role to play in meeting this target, but I think the biggest responsibility lies with parents."

Other targets in the plan include cutting the number of teenage pregnancies in under-17s by 40%, and 100% of school age mothers should complete their education.

See also:

30 Nov 01 | Health
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