Letter: Teen mums at risk

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The Independent Culture
Sir: Yasmin Alibhai-Brown talks a lot of sense on the subject of teenage mothers ("A new generation of mothers", 17 December). She is right that society's tendency to sexualise young people at an earlier age is one of the problems that underpin the increasing numbers of teenage parents. She is in my view right that some young women have children because they look at their futures and can't see any reason not to get pregnant - a double negative, not a positive choice.

If any group of young people is at risk of social exclusion, it is teen parents. It was because of this link that the Social Exclusion Unit was given this subject to consider. It is working closely with the Department of Health on health and social services issues. The problem is complex and cuts across the activities of many parts of Government - education and employment, and the whole package of support for teenage parents and their children. An approach that ignored these issues would have been rightly criticised as too narrow.

Young women get pregnant early for many reasons. But it is possible to create a picture of the young woman most at risk of a teenage pregnancy. Often, they have low educational attainment, their families have had financial problems, their own mothers were teenage mums, and they have a preference themselves for early motherhood. More than half of those with all these characteristics will become a teenage mother. Very few of those with none of them will. The last thing anyone wants to do is stigmatise vulnerable young people. But you do them a disservice by ignoring the facts.

Lastly, Yasmin is wrong to suggest that the Unit's work has been blocked or delayed for dark political reasons. The truth is rather more mundane. The Unit's work on teenage parenthood has produced over three times more submissions and pieces of research than any of its other reports. Its past work has been characterised by a belief in listening to views from the front line and a commitment to producing soundly based, common-sense proposals.

Teenage pregnancy is a complex area. I am sure Yasmin would agree that it is better that we do it right rather than do it in a hurry. The costs of getting it wrong are too high.

TESSA JOWELL MP

Minister of State for Public Health

Department of Health

London SW1

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