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Last Updated: Friday, 27 May, 2005, 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK
Teen pregnancy: Why are rates rising?
Crying baby
Why can't we match up to our European neighbours?
The debate on how best to tackle teenage pregnancy has arisen again as latest figures show the rate in under-16s in England and Wales has increased.

The government says it can do no more without the help of parents, while others are again calling for a broadening of sex and relationship education in schools.

The UK has the highest teenage birth rates in Western Europe - twice as high as in Germany, three times as high as in France and six times as high as in the Netherlands.

Why are the figures on the increase?

One thing that is lacking in the UK is a consensus on how to deal with the problem of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among teenagers.

All the incentives are going in the wrong direction - the best thing the government could do is stop undermining the family
Robert Whelan, Civitas

While there is often broad agreement on the root causes, there are differences over the "cure" that range, in their simplest terms, from promoting abstinence and traditional family values to encouraging more openness about sex and relationships.

A report by the government's Social Exclusion Unit, which forms the basis for its teenage pregnancy policy, says a number of factors stand out when looking at the reasons for the UK phenomenon.

Low expectations of education and employment opportunities for some young people, ignorance about contraception, and mixed messages about sex from the adult world are all cited.

Natasha, Jemma and Jade Williams with children Amani, T-Jay and Lita
Three sisters who gave birth at 12, 14 and 16 recently hit the headlines

Brook, which provides sexual health advice to young people, mostly agrees with the government's assessment, but says it needs to learn from the openness of other European countries.

Chief executive Jan Barlow said there were three main reasons why so many other countries enjoyed lower pregnancy and STI rates.

Good comprehensive sex and relationship education, better access to young people-friendly services, and a more open attitude to sex, she says, lead to young people making different decisions.

"We've got to normalise these issues. One way to do that is to make sex and relationship education in schools compulsory, as part of the PHSE (Personal, Social and Health Education) curriculum."

Having lived in Scandinavia, she has first-hand experience of a region that has a "different attitude" towards sex and enjoys low rates of teenage pregnancy.

We are setting them adrift in this sexualised society without giving them the tools to look after themselves
Jan Barlow, Brook

"There is an interest in other people's sex lives, such as celebrities', to an extent, but people are more able to separate that from real life.

"Here we get really into things like Celebrity Love Island, wondering whether these people are going to have sex on TV. In the UK we can deal with the fantasy but not what the reality is for young people."

Sex is around, it seems, but no-one is talking to young people about it, she adds.

"We are setting them adrift in this sexualised society without giving them the tools to look after themselves."

The government has promised more sex education training in England but schools are only currently obliged to teach the biological "mechanics".

Ms Barlow said she believed ministers had rejected proposals from advisors to make sex education within PSHE compulsory because they were sensitive about being perceived as a "nanny state".

France: age of consent is 15; consenting sex not illegal below that age
Germany: unlike the UK, parents do not have the right to withdraw their child from sex education
Netherlands: sex with 12-15 years olds only prosecuted if formal complaint made
Spain: age of consent is 13 if both parties are 16 or under

But Brook says research shows comprehensive education which starts before sexual activity begins does not make young people more likely to have sex.

According to studies done for the NHS at the University of York, it helps them delay having sex and makes them more likely to use contraception when they do.

Young British people often say the sex education they receive is "too little, too late, and too biological", adds Ms Barlow.

But Brook's position is vehemently disputed by think tank Civitas.

Deputy director Robert Whelan said the high rates were mostly down to the breakdown of the family.

"You can't just treat this in isolation, give them contraception and hope that will be the end of the problem. In any case, they are not efficient users of contraception."

Mr Whelan said the government thought it could solve the problem by "by transferring money from one section of the community to another via the welfare system".

'Wrong direction'

"The welfare system in itself is an incentive to become a single non-working parent. Working two-parent families are treated as cash cows that can be milked to support any other lifestyle choice," he said.

"All the incentives are going in the wrong direction. The best thing the government could do is stop undermining the family."

But a further claim - that the UK has a "large number of sexually active teens" - is contradicted by research from the Alan Guttmacher Institute in the USA.

In comparing rates between Europe and the US, where rates are much higher - it found the difference in levels of sexual activity were small.

The much-quoted research concluded that countries enjoying low rates of teen births were characterised by, among other things, an acceptance in society of the sexual activity of young people.

How can teen pregnancies be reduced?
26 May 05 |  Have Your Say

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