Moral Maze: Could sex education have prevented her pregnancy at 15?

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The Independent Online
Britain's record on teenage pregnancy is worse than in any other country in Europe. Jeremy Laurance asks where we went wrong.

The Eighties was an unhappy decade for teenage sex in the UK.

Until the start of the decade, teenage pregnancy rates had been dropping. The wider availability of the contraceptive pill and of abortion during the Seventies had altered the outcome for thousands of teenagers of the sexual experimentation that is a feature of adolescence across the developed world.

By the start of the Eighties conception rates of 15- to 19-year-olds were a quarter lower than a decade earlier and teenage births were more than a third lower. Births to under-16-year-olds were also a third lower. Then the improving trend stopped and went into reverse.

Explaining that reversal is key to understanding the factors that underlie teenage sex. For it was at that point, in the early Eighties, that Britain's experience started to diverge from that of the rest of Europe. While in almost all European countries the teenage birth rate fell sharply, in Britain it rose.

In 1980, 40 in every 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 had babies. By 1990 the figure had risen to 44. Among under-16-year- olds, 3.3 per thousand had babies in 1980, rising to 5 in 1990.

Since 1990, the picture has improved but in 1993, the rates turned up again.

Experts say the disaster of the Eighties can be blamed on the doubts about young people's rights to confidential advice raised by the Victoria Gillick case and cuts to family planning clinics. But a deeper reason driving young girls into motherhood - in the Eighties and now - is the lack of other options in their lives. Increasingly, teenage pregnancies are wanted pregnancies - and that makes it a much harder problem for policy makers to crack.

Ann Furedi, director of the Birth Control Trust, said: "Having a child can be a rite of passage into adulthood just as getting a first job used to be.

"It can be a way for a young woman to get away from her own family, by creating a new one, and it can be a way of attracting attention."

A pregnancy to a middle-class teenager who is expected to go on to higher education is far more likely to end in abortion than one to a teenager from a deprived background. Motherhood provides them with a role they would otherwise lack.

Alison Hadley, of Brook Advisory Centres, the family planning organisation, said: "We need a big change in youth perspective but there is still a lot we could do by improving sex education and availability of contraception. Many pregnancies just happen and we could reduce those that are unintended."

The Netherlands has one of the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe, despite its liberal reputation. Greater knowledge has not made Dutch children dangerously wise beyond their years. Surveys show they start having sex six months later on average than British children.

However, reasons for the Dutch success are less obvious than is sometimes suggested. Sex education was only made compulsory in schools in 1993, family planning services for young people are sporadic and training in contraception for GPs is limited. The key lies in cultural attitudes which encourage open discussion of sex in a non-sensationalist way.

Ms Hadley said: "Sex is not regarded as naughty in the Netherlands. People are much more open about it and about allowing teenagers to make up their own minds which encourages a responsible and sensible attitude. Sex is not seen as a tool of rebellion."