Monday 9 July 2007

British Culture: Teenage Pregnancy

Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe, twice that of Germany, three times higher than France and six times that of the Netherlands.

While the rest of the continent has seen dramatic falls in teenage parenthood since the early 80s, the UK's rate has remained high since 1977.

Each year, around 56,000 babies are born to teenage mothers in Britain with nearly 8,000 conceived by girls under 16 and 2,200 by under 14-year-olds.

The difficulty of solving the problem is made worse by the fact that there is no single identifiable reason for such high rates.

Poverty, poor educational opportunities, being born to a teenage mother, and lack of work opportunities are all factors, while rates of pregnancy have been found to be highest among the most vulnerable girls, those in deprived areas and those in care.

One recent report, for the National Children's Bureau, showed a quarter of girls leave local authority care pregnant with a further quarter becoming pregnant within 24 months of leaving.

Women in deprived areas are six times more likely to get pregnant by the age of 20 than those in the richest areas of Britain, according to the Family Policy Studies Centre.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed the number of pregnancies per 1,000 among under-18s in 1998 was highest in Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham (82.7), Manchester (68.3), Sandwell (67.8), and Sunderland (65.5).

The areas shown to have the fewest teenage pregnancies were East Surrey (22.5), West Surrey (25.7) Kingston and Richmond (25.7), and Oxfordshire (29.9).

While the government is committed to reducing the rate, there has been widespread concern that efforts to tackle the problem of teenage parenthood should not be reduced to moralising.

A study by the Policy Studies Institute recently revealed that most teenage mothers do not plan their pregnancies.

One in four of those interviewed said they had planned to have a baby and 40% were pleased to find they were pregnant. However, a quarter were shocked or surprised to find out they were pregnant and a further quarter were "horrified".

Placing an emphasis on prevention has always been seen as an essential part of the strategy but sustained action to understand and address the needs of teenagers during and after pregnancy is now being recognised as a fundamental requirement.

There is a strong link between teenage parenthood and an increased risk of poor health, economic and social outcomes for both mothers and children, according to several studies.

Research cited by the Family Policy Studies Centre found that, compared to those who became first-time mothers in their 20s, teenage mothers were four times more likely to be living in social housing, over eight times as likely to have been lone parents, and almost three times more likely to lack qualifications, by the age of 33.

In its report, published in June 1999, the government's social exclusion unit identified three possible reasons for Britain's higher teenage birth rates: low expectations in terms of job prospects, ignorance about contraception and the reality of motherhood, and mixed messages about sex.

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