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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.

A selection of your comments appears below.

I'm 19 and five months pregnant. I'm getting married in six weeks time. Amazingly it is younger people who have the worst reactions to me being pregnant, I've never once got a nasty look or comment off of someone older than the age of around 25. Me and my partner both have full time jobs, a nice place to live (that isn't a council house) and supportive families, I think we are just if not more capable than some older parents.
L, Oxfordshire

I feel quite strongly that pregnant teenagers are victimised. I was 19 when I fell pregnant with my son. Although the relationship with his father broke down by the time he was five years old, I brought him up as a single parent, I had a full time job and a mortgage and he is now a sensible, clever 24 year old who has not only done a degree in history (he got a 2.1), he also has a masters degree. I am the owner of two houses, I have no mortgage and no I am not a self made millionaire and neither am I self-employed. I am a simple business travel consultant. I have worked hard and taught my son the same values in life. I have never been on the dole so have never "sponged " as teenaged mothers and single mothers are accused of. It is the social structure you allow yourself to live in and it is the morals and the values that are passed to your children that count not the age at which you have them.
Catherine Hickling, London

Frankly, if teenagers become pregnant then it should be up to the two teens involved and their families to support the child and its mother. Although I consider myself a reasonable person I do disagree with what is becoming a state-funded breeding programme. Successive governments have made it too easy to get state aid, now teen pregnancy is seen as a lifestyle choice with living expenses and a free flat thrown in.
Hugh Reynolds, UK

These days we are expected to work before having a family. 50 years ago it was the other way round (my nan had a job but she was a wife & mother first). Society will always have certain norms but it is a mark of a truly civilised society if you a) are free to organise your life outside those norms and b) still be valued for your contribution. Of course, if a child (at under 16, that's what you are) becomes pregnant through ignorance or a misguided attempt at getting affection because she's so isolated, then we have let her down and it's the least we can do to support and help her.
Emma, London

I am not opposed to teenagers having babies as such but the situation has become difficult because of the girls who have no problem with having babies where the public purse picks up the bill so they don't need to have a father involved. This shouldn't happen and needs urgent measures to stop more girls leaving school pregnant and getting into a life where they have more and more babies and never have to support them. In turn these children grow up in households where no-one works and it carries on.
Julie Akers, Manchester

I got pregnant one month after my 19th birthday. I lived on my own and supported myself and didn't view myself as a teenage mother, though I was. I received the critical looks and stares, as well as, some rude remarks. I finally vented on one woman who made her comment so that I could hear it. My view is, you know nothing about that person. How can you judge what you don't know? They may be very responsible and something just happened, as was the case with me. Just because they get pregnant, doesn't make them un-educated, poor, or even thoughtless. It makes them human. People don't plan everything that happens to them. My "teenage mistake" has turned out to be a very smart, beautiful girl and I hope she never has to deal with all that I did by bringing her into the world. If she does, I'll be right behind her supporting her all the way.
Sarah, Tahlequah, Oklahoma USA

The stigma attached to teenage pregnancy is largely based on the assumption that the pregnant 13-19 year old had not planned on having a family, is not in a stable enough relationship to raise a child and is not yet mature enough to support her emotions during this time, and to a large extent these assumptions are often true. However, coming from an Irish Catholic background, young pregnancies were a lot more common in my history in order to create large families, the only difference is that these were on the most part married parents. One problem with teenage pregnancy, however, is that the years spent at university or after secondary school, while usually used for personal development will be completely thrown out the window. I, personally, am a large believer of action and consequence so it is my belief that as long as somebody is truly mature enough to have a child, no matter what age, then they shouldn't be segregated from the rest of society for doing so.
Luke McEvoy, Derry

I just think it is not difficult to get or use contraceptives be that the pill or a condom, you can even get them for free! Education doesn't do enough to decrease the appeal and the government / councils do too much to make it easier for them, ie free homes when working people are struggling to get on the property ladder even after busting a gut for 40 - 80 hours a week!
Kate, Warwickshire


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