When is a result not a result? When there's a general election in the offing.
Figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics showed teenage pregnancies in the UK have fallen to their lowest in over a decade. Cheers from the Left, who claim the 13 per cent drop as a victory for the Government's £286m "10-year plan" to tackle the issue. Boos from the Right, who point out that the figure falls "disastrously" short of the 50 per cent decrease in teen pregnancies pledged by Tony Blair in 1999.
Is there a more battered political football than the pregnant teen? As poster girl for "broken Britain", she presents an irresistibly soft target. In the bad old days, the fallen woman had only her own "sin" to atone for. In our more liberal era, the young, unmarried mother cops the lot for everything that's wrong with society. Bad parenting/declining morals/benefit grabbing – sooner or later it all devolves on her head.
There is an ancient misogyny at work here. We talk, without irony, of girls "getting themselves pregnant", but the biological fact remains: for every teenage mother there is a father and this, it seems to me, is an area where this Government – or the next – could usefully focus its initiatives.
As it is, the action plan rolled out this week by Children's Minister Dawn Primarolo and Public Health Minister Gillian Merron could roughly be characterised as "more of the same". Teenage Pregnancy Strategy: Beyond 2010 promises to deliver one-on-one health and contraception consultations for 16-year-olds alongside increased resources for parents and teachers and more school-based initiatives.
These are reasonable measures – huffing and puffing about how such measures deny or detract from parental responsibility wilfully misses the point that not all parents are equally responsible – but we need to build on them. There can scarcely be a teenager living in Britain now who does not know how babies are made. There remains, however, a dangerous "awareness gap"– at least for teenage boys – as to what comes next. In a world where Nuts magazine is sold on the next shelf to the Beano and porn pops up, unsolicited, on GCSE revision websites, boys are growing up knowing everything there is to know about sex, except its natural consequence.
However much the notion of sexual responsibility is dinned into boys in the classroom, however many condoms are handed out at break-time, it isn't working enough of the time; we still have the highest number of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe. If teenage girls are being pressured into unprotected sex, it's because teenage boys feel they have nothing to lose. In a sense, they're right. I won't say early parenthood ruins a girl's life, but it certainly defines it. The same is not true of young fathers in Britain today; where both parents are under 17, only 2 per cent of fathers are involved with the baby nine months after the birth.
Thirty years ago, the looming threat of a shotgun wedding imposed a measure of restraint; if a boy got a girl pregnant, society expected him to "take responsibility". You can't turn the clock back. Nor, when you consider the misery of trapped lives or the inhuman cruelty of forced adoption, would you wish to. But there has to be a way of involving young fathers and potential fathers with the families they have helped to create.
Under the Welfare Reform Act, which became law in November, there is a requirement for births to be registered jointly to both parents. Debated paternity can be swiftly resolved by DNA testing. It should, therefore, be possible to track absent fathers and secure a measure of engagement with their child.
Clearly, in a culture of widespread youth unemployment, the Child Support Agency is a woefully blunt instrument, but there are other ways of bringing home the personal impact of fatherhood – compulsory community service programmes where a proportion of the wage goes directly to the upkeep of the child might be trialled.
Required attendance at parenting courses for young fathers would, at best, foster the necessary skills for building a relationship with their child and their co-parent. (Even if said fathers never learn how to change a nappy, the fact of having to give up substantial chunks of their time might make them think twice about casual fatherhood.)
It is time we stopped treating the pregnant teenager as a socio-political marker and starting thinking about the realities of her children's lives. Responsibility can be learned and is best learned by example. These children are the responsibility of us all.
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