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Monday, June 14, 1999 Published at 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK

Labour chooses 'Third Way' on teen pregnancy

British teenagers are more likely to get pregnant than their European counterparts

The BBC's Social Affairs Editor Niall Dickson analyses the implications of the social exclusion unit's report on teenage pregnancies.

Caught between a strong liberal lobby anxious to promote safer sex and a strong traditional lobby anxious to discourage promiscuity among the young, the government has once again sought to find a 'third way'.

Teen pregnancy
Its measures are designed to encourage young people to meet their responsibilities while avoiding the moralising and punitive tone which is felt to alienate many young people.

Teenage pregnancy is largely a social problem affecting the poor - young girls in social class five are 10 times more likely to become pregnant than their counterparts in the top social group.

The girls who have babies young are much more likely to have low academic attainment, much more likely to have low self esteem and poor career prospects.

The government's strategy therefore is designed both to bring down the rate of teenage conceptions and to support young mothers in ways that will lift them and their children out of a life of dependency.

Pragmatic approach

To reduce conceptions the plan is to improve sex education in schools with the aim not so much of discouraging teenagers from having sex but of making them aware of the dangers of unprotected intercourse and the advantages of delaying sexual experience.

It is clearly a pragmatic approach - the unknown is whether better sex education and large scale publicity really will change behaviour significantly, even if contraception is made more widely available - the fact that other countries with better sex education programmes have lower rates of teenage pregnancies is encouraging but the real causes may well be more deep rooted.

Unless the life chances of these young women are changed dramatically, sex education on its own is unlikely to bring the pregnancy rate down.

Council flats

The measures announced on Monday do include new ways of supporting teenage mothers that are meant to break the cycle of dependence - the most controversial of which is the plan to stop the under 18s being placed in council flats where they tend to become isolated.

In future, those not living at home will be expected to live in supported hostels where they can be taught parenting skills and given child care and training to enable them to find a job.

There have been suggestions in the past that young girls have deliberately become pregnant to get a flat.

There is no evidence to support such a crude calculation, but the charge does contain a germ of truth inasmuch as the arrival of a baby to a young girl with little going for her does confer status, giving her and her peers the illusion that she is an independent adult.

This may not be why she became pregnant, although it may affect her decision to keep the baby.

'Tough love'

So within the government strategy there is an element of 'tough love' - the hostels are not portrayed as punishment, but ministers are anxious that the message gets out that life is difficult as a young parent and that more often than not it is an undesirable state.

Interestingly, in Holland there is stigma associated with teenage parenthood - those who become pregnant are regarded as 'pathetic' by many of their peers.

So the New Labour refrain of 'responsibility' will be heard loud and clear with a message directed at boys as much girls.

The Child Support Agency will be warning boys that the days when they could father children and escape the financial consequences are numbered.

The approach adopted by the government will not please those liberals who want much more emphasis on contraception, nor will it satisfy traditionalists who believe abstinence is the answer.

But for many in the middle of this argument this will seem like a sensible compromise.

It is certainly a comprehensive programme and the target of cutting teenage pregnancies in England by a half over the next 10 years will not be easily achieved.

Teenage pregancy is a complex social issue - whether the plans succeed overall will be as much a test of the limits of government, as the merits of the individual measures themselves. > >

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