Moral Maze: Abortion remark sparks debate over teenage mothers

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The Independent Online
Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, yesterday ignited a savage political row by calling for an easing of the abortion laws. Among those looking on aghast will be the Prime Minister, a staunch conservative on the issue. So why has Dobson acted? Because, say Jeremy Laurance and Colin Brown, Britain has a real problem with teenage pregnancy.

Cutting schoolgirl pregnancies is to be a key element of the Government's public health strategy, to be launched next week. But the national target set by the Tories is unworkable, Labour believes.

Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe but ministers say the target of halving it in girls under 16 by 2000, set by the last government, ignores the huge variations in different parts of the country. Four times as many schoolgirls get pregnant in parts of the North and Midlands than in the better off South.

Downing Street moved swiftly yesterday to distance Tony Blair from remarks by Mr Dobson after he had supported changing the law to make early abortion easier to obtain and said there should be more contraceptives available to young women. Mr Dobson had suggested that requiring one rather than two doctors to authorise an abortion could make it easier for teenagers to obtain one.

"The position on abortion has not changed," said a Downing Street source. That was seen as a clear signal that there are no plans by the Government to change the law, in spite of the personal opinions of the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr Dobson made it clear he would support a backbench bill to reform abortion legislation, but without government support, that has little chance of becoming law. Anti-abortion campaigners, led by Ann Widdecombe, the former Home Office minister, insisted that the fact that Mr Dobson's position made it difficult for the Government to duck the issue by saying it was his own personal view. "It is like the Home Secretary saying he supports hanging," she said.

Attempting to douse the fire, Tessa Jowell, minister of health, said yesterday that the priority was to prevent pregnancies. Figures showed the under-16s pregnancy rate ranged from more than 15 girls in every thousand in Barnsley to less than four in west Surrey. "The scale of the regional inequalities makes a compelling case for local action. To take the national average doesn't mean anything. We believe the way to tackle teenage pregnancy is through a combination of national and local action."

Bringing down teenage pregnancies, which are highest in deprived urban areas, is a key element in the Government's drive to tackle poverty. Four task groups have been studying the problem. Mrs Jowell said she planned further meetings with teenagers, teenage mothers - and their parents. Editors of teenage magazines are also to be consulted.

Progress in cutting teenage pregnancies has been very slow in Britain, which has a high rate compared with others, despite Government targets and propaganda. Mrs Jowell said yesterday: "You can set all the targets in the world but they are useless unless they achieve something. The important thing is not just to stop these girls becoming pregnant but to build optimism and excitement about the future so that they don't feel impelled to see having a baby as the only way they can give their lives a purpose."

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