Joan Smith: Teenage parent Bristol Palin tells it like it is

Calls for abstinence from sex are unrealistic

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It's barely been reported in this country, but Sarah Palin's 18-year-old daughter gave birth to a son in December.

You may recall that the revelation of Bristol Palin's pregnancy was a shock for Republican presidential candidate John McCain after he chose Mrs Palin as his running mate, drawing attention to her support for that absurdity known as "abstinence-based" sex education. Sarah Palin has been strangely reluctant to discuss the subject since she became a grandmother, but in a halting interview on a right-wing TV station, Bristol has let slip that she disagrees with her mother's views on sex education. She now says that she would like to use her experience to persuade other teenage girls not to become pregnant.

In the UK, teenage pregnancies have been much discussed in the past few days, as the number of teenage conceptions in England and Wales rose for the first time in five years. Among girls aged 15 to 17, conception rates rose from 40.9 per thousand in 2006 to 41.9 per thousand in 2007; in the younger age range, there was an increase from 7.8 to 8.1 per thousand. There were claims that the Government's strategy to halve teenage pregnancy by 2010 wasn't working, and the usual demands for a return to traditional family values.

Right-wing commentators love to moan about recreational sex, as if the only kind they ever have is to increase the population. In fact, the majority of sex acts these days are recreational, that is, they're about love and pleasure rather than procreation. It's clear that what works in terms of preventing teenage pregnancies is educating young people about sex, contraception and how to handle relationships – including how to say no to unwanted sex – along with support for girls who are at risk of pregnancy, truancy and substance abuse.

Where all these things are already being done, the number of teenage pregnancies is still going down, even in some of the most deprived parts of England. In Hackney, east London, the number of teenagers getting pregnant has dropped by more than a quarter; in Rotherham, the town in South Yorkshire which hit the headlines in 1999 when a 12-year-old girl gave birth, the teenage pregnancy rate has been cut by 10.5 per cent in the past decade.

Even Lambeth, the south London borough which has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Britain, has reported a decline for the fourth year running. Three of Lambeth's 11 sexual health clinics have specific surgeries for young people and the council sends nurses into schools, youth centres and homeless centres to provide advice about sexual relationships. In Rotherham, a pilot scheme has been set up to provide intensive support to vulnerable girls, and early results show that substance abuse and teenage pregnancies have gone down, while school attendance is up.

All of this is exemplary, and shows that the problem isn't too much sex education but the reluctance of some councils to implement the Government's strategy. They don't want to spend money or they're influenced by family values campaigners, who argue that educating kids about sex encourages them to try it. I wish they'd listen to Bristol Palin, who has learned the hard way that telling teenagers to abstain from sex is "not realistic at all".

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