How best to stop teenage pregnancies

In family groups where sex is discussed without embarrassment, children have sex later and use contraception carefully
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The Independent Online

Oh dear. It looked bad for liberal sex education, didn't it, when earlier in the month an economist at Nottingham University revealed that the Government's Teenage Pregnancy Strategy seemed to be increasing sexual activity among children? His report suggested that in a group of key areas that had been targeted in an attempt to curb teenage pregnancy by promoting contraception, the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases was rocketing.

For those committed to damage limitation, to educating children about their choices instead of pretending that under-age sexual activity does not occur, these statistics could be refuted with a certain amount of ease. In most of the areas targeted, it was not teenage pregnancy which rose (although the latest figures do show a small rise after years of downward progress), but the prevalence of STDs.

This is a worrying development, but it does not necessarily indicate that no contraception is being used. Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise generally and alarmingly. The trend seems to be driven by a combination of receding fears about Aids and receding fears about the health risks of the pill. People are moving back to oral contraception from barrier contraception. This includes the morning-after pill as well as the contraceptive pill, which also tends to be promoted to teenagers as a way of combating their feckless fertility.

But the Nottingham report is insignificant anyway, when compared to reports in Scotland, which claim that the Healthy Respect project, launched three years ago in the Lothian region, has resulted in an explosion in teenage pregnancies. The area was chosen, when this flagship strategy was launched, because girls aged between 13 and 15 were three per cent more likely to become pregnant than anywhere else in Scotland.

Now after £3m in government funding has been spent on promoting the "open approach", which provides information on safe sex for those already sexually active including the free distribution of condoms, girls in the same age group are now 14 per cent more likely to become pregnant than their peers in the rest of the country. Some of the huge rise has been created statistically, because rates everywhere else have gone down. Far from offering an extenuating circumstance though, this detail adds another layer of cruel irony to a parlous situation.

It is reported that the Scottish executive nevertheless is still considering the project for the rest of the country. A spokeswoman for the executive told the Scottish press: "Healthy Respect is a long-term project which aims to change attitudes and behaviour." The Catholic Church is less mealy-mouthed. "This approach has failed to tackle the rise in sexually transmitted infections, unwanted conceptions and abortion levels," said Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland. "It's value-free style should certainly not be used elsewhere."

It's hardly worth pointing out, of course, that the Cardinal's alternative - no contraception, no abortion, and a single sexual partner for life - has not been proving overly persuasive just lately. Sex education is one of those areas where "debate" is so entrenched and so formalised that actually it does not even exist.

In a response to the Nottingham study, for example, a woman called Valerie Riches wrote an hysterical pamphlet called Sex Education or Indoctrination? Her conclusion was the latter, as if that helps anyone.

She, like many on the right, seems carried away with the idea that there's a deliberate left-wing agenda aimed at getting people as sexually debauched as possible at the earliest age possible. Even though such an agenda is patently ludicrous - in a society obsessed with the sanctity of childhood, hardly anyone likes to think of their baby having sex at any age let alone under 16 - it has fairly wide currency.

Ms Riches, who heads a pressure group called the Family Education Trust, suggests that the Government sees sex education as "a manipulative tool to replace the influence of parents with the authority of the state." Sadly, though, she is so wrong that it almost reduces one to tears.

The real reason why liberal thought has alighted on the "open approach" as being the best way to combat teenage pregnancy, is precisely because this is what works best within the family. In family groups, where sex is discussed between parents and children without embarrassment and with frankness, children have sex later, use contraception more carefully and are less likely to become pregnant.

In other words, far from being a way of undermining the family, the open approach is a way of attempting to replicate good family practice in an educational context. My own belief is that well-intentioned as the approach is, it doesn't work.

In families where loving support and sound advice on matters sexual and otherwise is not forthcoming, children are more likely to be early adopters of what they see as adult behaviour. The perceived problem for schools (flagged up in the phoney war) is whether to accept this situation and arm children with the information that can limit the physical implications of their activity, in a sad reproduction of what a loving parent might do in a similar situation, or combat it.

Prevailing wisdom - now looking rather shaky - is that the former strategy should be adopted. The alternative, as promoted by among others the Catholic church and Ms Riches is for "abstinence" to be promoted in schools instead. My own assertion though is that both approaches are too "value laden".

First, most sex education - except these projects which are tackling areas of particular concern - emphasises first, that sex under 16 is illegal, and that second, sex should never be rushed into. Advice to use contraceptive if these two points are ignored, generally comes third.

It may be time though, for such advice to come fourth instead. Old-fashioned abstinence techniques usually rely on terrifying people with ideas of unending shame, grinding poverty (many demand that alongside abstinence, there should be a purging from the welfare state of "rewards" for teenage mothers) or even eternal damnation.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Explaining a little more before the condoms are handed out about how it is that the age of consent is designed to protect young people may not go amiss. I think we broadly understand as a society why it is that early sexual activity is not desirable, even in a society that seems obsessed with sex. The families that get this across to their children, don't achieve it by giving them condoms, but by teaching them every day through their own experience, that childhood is valuable.

The children who get into sexual problems at a young age are usually the children who have not been able to learn that, for the reasons we are familiar with. Poverty and educational failure are the main benchmarks for teenage pregnancy. This is partly because sexual knowledge is taught primarily by parents, not by schools. But schools, and other providers of sex education, should still bear in mind that if the parental duty of care, which treats children as children, has failed, that is no reason for the educators to take their own cue from that failure.