Teen pregnancies `have not risen in the past 20 years'

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THE RECENT upsurge in concern over teenage pregnancy is ill-founded because the number of girls and young women becoming pregnant has not changed in the past 20 years, according to a report today.

The analysis of teenage pregnancy by the Family Policy Studies Centre, (FPSC) a leading research organisation, has found that although the United Kingdom has the highest rate of teenage births in Western Europe, it has remained fairly static since the early 1980s. Many countries, including Sweden, Denmark and Norway, have seen their teenage birth rates fall because of an increase in abortion rates rather than fewer young women becoming pregnant.

Teenage motherhood has only become an issue in our society because these young parents cannot support themselves and are forced to rely on benefits, said Ceridwen Roberts, director of the centre. "Societal values about teenage mothers have changed. The numbers are similar but 30 years ago they might have given their babies up or had shotgun marriages ... It is the income situation of these couples that has changed. Thirty years ago teenage parents were much more likely to be able to support themselves. There are only one or two 12-year-old mothers each year, the vast bulk of teenage mothers are aged 17,18, or 19. Twenty years ago this would not have been considered too young to have children," she said.

The report highlights the reduced life chances for teenage parents, 90 per cent of whom live on benefits for several years.

The labour market has changed so much that completing full-time education and gaining qualifications is much more important in getting a first job. Teenage parents who have stepped off the "educational ladder" become much more of an economic and social burden.

Sex education, access to abortion and moral disapproval are not sufficient to reduce teenage pregnancy, the report argues. Tackling the disadvantage and poor job prospects is crucial, otherwise "a minority of young women will continue to invest in the only route into adulthood open to them - their sexuality and their ability to conceive - and everyone will pay the price."

In 1997, there were 95,500 conceptions by girls and women under 20 - 8,300 of whom were under the age of 16. There has been very little change in conception rates since the early 1970s with approximately eight girls in every thousand becoming pregnant before their 16th birthday.

Ms Roberts said: "The groups most at risk from early parenthood are those who have little going for them in our society... Reducing teenage pregnancy is really about tackling the poverty of opportunity that faces many young people particularly those in inner cities."

The Government aims to halve the rate of conceptions among under 18s by 2010. Tessa Jowell, the Public Health minister, will tell an FPSC conference today: "The problem of teenage pregnancy and poor sexual health is not going to go away by itself. The Government is not giving up on it."