Under-16 pregnancy rate soars

Jane Kirby
Thursday 26 February 2009 12:40 GMT

The pregnancy rate among under-16s has risen 6.4 per cent in one year, figures showed today.

There were 7.8 conceptions per 1,000 girls aged under 16 in 2006, rising to 8.3 per 1,000 girls in 2007.

The actual number of pregnancies in girls aged under 16 increased from 7,826 in 2006 to 8,196 in 2007.

Nearly three-quarters of these pregnancies were in 15-year-old girls.

The overall pregnancy rate among under-18s in England and Wales has risen for the first time since 2002, the data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) also showed.

The under-18 conception rate increased from 40.9 per 1,000 women in 2006 to 41.9 in 2007.

The Government has pledged to halve teenage pregnancy rates among girls under 18 by half by next year but is widely expected to miss that target.

A 2004 aim to cut the rates by 15 per cent from the base year of 1988 was missed.

Among all ages, there are now more pregnancies outside marriage than in marriage compared with a decade ago, today's data revealed.

In 2007, 56 per cent of pregnancies were outside marriage compared with 49 per cent in 1996.

Gill Frances, chairwoman of the Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group, said: "Today's challenging figures clearly show that all local areas have to stop the excuses and get on with providing contraceptive services and sex and relationship education for all young people, including the under-16s.

"There is good news.

"We've still got an overall fall in teenage pregnancy, with fewer young women getting pregnant since the strategy began, and we've seen a 23 per cent reduction in teenage mothers, which is a major turnaround."

She said the teenage pregnancy strategy was working well in many parts of the country, but today's figures show huge variation.

Some areas were reducing rates by more than 25 per cent, compared with a small number of areas whose rates have risen by 25 per cent since the start of the strategy.

She called on Government to extend the strategy until the goal of halving rates has been achieved.

Baroness Gould, chairwoman of the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, said: "Tackling teenage pregnancy effectively is a complex challenge. It requires that many factors be in place.

"Good quality sex and relationship education in schools, having a strong network of contraceptive services, and offering young people the full choice of contraception are only three factors - but they are achievable in the foreseeable future and we support any efforts to that end.

"Bringing down teenage pregnancy rates must remain a high priority both nationally and locally.

"It is an indicator of social inequity that is intolerable in Britain in the 21st century."

Juliet Hiller, from the charity Brook, said: "It's disappointing, but not surprising to see an increase.

"It is essential that funding finds its way to local areas where the need is greatest and this is simply not happening consistently.

"Sex and relationships education is still too little, too late and too biological."

In 2007, the number of pregnancies among women under 18 was 42,918 compared with 41,768 in 2006.

Of these, 50 per cent led to an abortion, compared with 48 per cent in 2006, the ONS report said.

The Government responded to the figures by announcing funding worth £20.5m, of which £19m is new cash.

Public health minister Dawn Primarolo and children's minister Beverley Hughes said the cash was focused on encouraging young people to delay early sex and to practise safe sex when they do become sexually active.

Of the money, £7m will be spent on a contraceptive choice media campaign to raise awareness of the different options - including long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) such as implants.

A total of £10m will be given to local health services to ensure contraception is available "in the right places at the right time" and £1m will be used in further education colleges to develop and expand on-site contraception and sexual health services.

A further £2.5m will be used to develop a Healthy College programme.

The Government said the long-term trend on teen pregnancy was still downward and overall there had been a 10.7 per cent reduction in under-18 conceptions and a 23.3 per cent decline in teenage births since the start of the Government's strategy in 1998.

Ms Hughes said: "Today's teenage pregnancy statistics are disappointing, although the reduction in the last quarter of 2007 over 2006 gives me cautious optimism that the drive to reduce teenage pregnancy conceptions is still on track.

"There is no doubt that rates have come down where local areas have implemented the strategy properly, even in deprived areas.

"The evidence suggests that more teenagers may have been engaging in risky behaviour and not using contraception, resulting in an increase in conceptions leading to abortion.

"Our strategy is to encourage teenagers to delay early sexual activity, but to use contraception when they do become sexually active.

"We have already announced our intention to make sex and relationship education (SRE) compulsory and we will be providing new SRE guidance to schools this September.

"This is in addition to more support for parents to help them talk more openly to their children about sex and relationships.

"And for the minority of families where parents are failing in their responsibilities we will continue our programmes of intensive family support which we know works in getting parents to do better by their children."

Ms Primarolo said: Young people need good advice and easy access to contraception when they become sexually active.

"To help, we are improving access to contraception by providing an extra £20.5m funding this year.

"We are supporting the NHS to offer women of all ages the full range of contraceptive choices, including long-acting reversible methods such as implants and injections which are virtually 100 per cent effective.

"And we're giving local health services more money to come up with innovative ways of making sure young women use their contraceptives properly, such as text message reminders."

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: "This is another Government target missed.

"Once again it demonstrates how pointless it is to set targets if the Government doesn't do what is needed to deliver on them.

"Reducing teenage pregnancy requires more than teaching children about sex.

"It requires a supportive and responsible family together with high-quality relationship education which gives teenagers the self-confidence and guidance needed to recognise their interest in avoiding early and unprotected sexual intercourse."

Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, said: "The teenage conception figures are only the tip of the iceberg.

"The real problem is the growing numbers of young people engaging in casual recreational sex.

"This is not only leading to rising rates of conceptions and sexually transmitted infections, but it is also causing emotional damage that may make it more difficult to form a truly intimate, trusting and satisfying marriage later on.

"The Government's teenage pregnancy strategy has been a disaster for young people.

"The expansion of confidential contraceptive services for young people under the age of 16 is making it more difficult for girls to resist the advances of their boyfriends and is giving the green light for boys to pressurise girls into sexual activity.

"The Government's latest initiative, advising parents not to tell their children that there are any rights or wrongs where sex is concerned, is further abandoning young people to the shifting sands of relativism and depriving them of the moral compass they so desperately need.

"Given the misery that so often flows from casual temporary relationships, the best advice parents and teachers can give to children and young people is to avoid forming an exclusive friendship with someone from the opposite sex until they are in a position to seriously consider getting married.

"Separating sex from marriage has not only led to high rates of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and abortions, but it is also a major contributory factor in divorce and family breakdown and all the human misery and adverse social consequences that flow from it."

Julie Bentley, chief executive of the FPA (formerly the Family Planning Clinic), said: "Given that we've had such a downward trend it's disappointing to see any rise.

"However, thousands of young women and men who may have become teenage parents haven't because of the work of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. It's therefore important that the strategy continues.

"Teenage pregnancy is extremely complicated.

"There's never a 'quick-fix' but this does show how important it is to get statutory Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) into schools quickly.

"In our survey, parents told us the most important thing the Government can do to bring down teenage pregnancy is to have better SRE as well."

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), said: "We can all agree that the high proportion of teenagers experiencing an unintended pregnancy is a significant health problem which society must tackle head on.

"However, the fact that half of the teenagers in this position felt able to end their pregnancy in abortion is actually a positive sign.

"This means that more young women now know how to get the care they need and that if they have other plans for their teenage years aside from motherhood, they felt more able to make that choice.

"There is less social stigma about abortion amongst young people these days.

"If that means young women now have more choice about whether to keep their baby, or to end a pregnancy if their contraception has let them down, then that is an entirely good thing.

"The reasons why unintended pregnancies happen in all age groups are very complex and difficult to understand.

"If it was simple, it would be easy to come up with a quick-fix solution, but that's not the way it is.

"Government initiatives to promote contraception to young people are great, but we really have to look at why youngsters aren't motivated to use it consistently - or if they are, what's going wrong."

Liberal Democrat children's spokeswoman Annette Brooke said: "The Government has failed to treat this country's scandalously high teenage pregnancy rate with the urgency it needs.

"It looks like the progress that had been made is being reversed.

"If ministers had got their act together and introduced quality relationship and sex education into the curriculum we would not be in this dismal situation today.

"Instead of endless reviews and leaflets for parents, ministers need to ensure that all of our young people are getting the relationship and sex education they need."

The data showed that the number of abortions to girls under 18 is the highest since records began in 1990.

In 1990, 41 per cent of pregnancies in this age group ended in abortion. In 2007 the figure was 50 per cent.

Among under-16s, the figure was 51 per cent in 1990 and 61 per cent in 2007.

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