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Teen pregnancy Monday, 28 June, 1999, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Teenage pregnancies: the picture worldwide
The UK could learn lessons from other countries on tackling teen births
The UK has the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe and the highest number of unmarried teenage mothers in the world.

Teen pregnancy
The UK annual total for teenage pregnancies now stands at about 93,000, according to the British Medical Association.

This is the highest level of teenage pregnancy in Europe - twice that of Germany and four times that of France.

The UK government's social exclusion unit, which has reported on the problem, has been scrutinising plans in the Netherlands and the United States for inspiration on how to tackle the issue which costs tax payers as much as 10bn each year.

The following is an outline of challenges and solutions in the two countries the government is looking to most, and what the UK might learn.

The Netherlands

The Netherlands has the lowest teen pregnancy rate in Europe. Social attitudes to teenage sex and pregnancy are very different to those in the UK.

In Holland, there is social stigma attached to getting pregnant, while in some poor areas of the UK, pregnancy has become normalised.

Children are taught openly about sex both at home and at school - and they are expected to deal with sex responsibly.

Contraception is promoted for its health benefits by Dutch doctors. Many young women start using the pill before they begin having sex.

If all else fails, abortion is considered a more acceptable option than in some parts of the UK.

The Netherlands defies theories that openness encourages sex.

Surveys show that teenagers in the Netherlands are likely to start having sex on average a year later than their British counterparts. In the Netherlands, 58% of teenage girls discuss pregnancy with their partners, compared to 30% in the UK.

Roger Ingham, who has done comparative studies of the two countries for the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton, says openness is the answer.

"If anything, as the results from recent assessments of sex education make clear, earlier and more open sex education is likely to lead to improved sexual health through more competent interactions."

The United States

In the United States, it is estimated that 56% of young women and 73% of young men have had sex before the age of 18 - up from 35% and 55% in the 1970s.

More shocking are the results. Twenty-two per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds who have sexual intercourse become pregnant.

Around 13% of all US births are to teenage mothers. This figure rises to almost 33% for girls who have had less than 10 to 12 years of schooling.

The United States does not have a national policy on sex education and there is great variation in what is taught and politics plays a key role. In many states, for example, the subject of abortion is off limits.

The results are as mixed up as the policies.

In a nationwide survey, seven out of 10 women who had sex before the age of 14 said they had done so against their will, either through pressure or coercion from males.

At the same time as there is pressure to have sex at a young age, there is also a growing movement towards abstention from sex before marriage.

Sociologists say this confusion reflects mixed cultural attitudes towards sex, the glorification of casual sex in film and the rise of Christian fundamentalists.

What then is there to learn from the United States?

It has had success with the education programmes like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which aims to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by one-third between 1996 and 2005.

The success of Virginity Clubs, where young girls promise not to have sex before marriage, have also garnered much attention.

Like other experts, Americans say the key is a cohesive policy.

"In the US, controversy over what message should be given to children has hampered sex education programmes in schools," said a spokesperson for the Aids awareness organisation, Avert.

"Too often statements of value ('my children should not have sex outside marriage') come wrapped up in misstatements of fact ('sex education doesn't work anyway')," he added.

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