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Julia Manning: More can — and should — be done about unplanned pregnancy

JMJulia Manning is Chief Executive of 2020Health.

On the eve of the most famous unplanned pregnancy of all time (unplanned by the parents, at any rate), 2020health has supported the Cross-Party Inquiry into Unplanned Pregnancy. Unintentional conception still happens – to knowledgeable doctors, to articulate teenagers, to wives of Prime Ministers – not the usual stereotypes.

Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton yesterday covered the nub of the problem – and it is most definitely a problem – which is why, in a country where contraception is free and the pressures on the NHS unsustainable, the number of abortions is still rising. We felt this review was an eminently sensible way to look at just what more can be done.

There were many striking findings that I hope will influence policy makers, two in particular I want to mention here. The first was just how much young people, especially teenage girls, want relationship education. Not sex education. Relationship education. In a society where teenage sexual activity is considered normal, where adults no longer protect children from pornography, where not enough parents give their teens emotional support, where airbrushed images leave children desperately insecure that they are not ‘normal’, young people – especially girls - are feeling confused, defenceless, anxious and exploited.

Schools are currently free to do what they like when it comes to teaching on Sex and Relationship Education (SRE). The functional sex component is covered in biology, which is already part of the National Curriculum, and this is also the obvious place to talk about infection transmission, contraception and pregnancy. However we would like to see relationship education become statutory as well. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a role for parents – in an ideal world they should always be the primary source of guidance; but this isn’t an ideal world and relationship education will help equip the next generation of parents.

Our Inquiry heard some powerful testimony from a group of girls, formerly the subject of an interview by Eleanor Mills in the Sunday Times. The girls revealed their sense of pain and betrayal: “There was nothing about relationships, or intimacy, or trust, or love, or saying girls should wait and they didn’t have to do it, or encouraging them not to”; “There’s nothing about being committed, being comfortable, being safe, having cuddles. Nobody encourages you to wait until you feel ready,” (quotes from Eleanor’s article, not our Inquiry, but the same sentiments were repeated there). It’s clear to us that if we want to see a reduction in what is often sexual exploitation leading to unplanned pregnancy, then we need to be arming teenage girls for battle against peer and societal pressures, and teaching both sexes about the warped world of porn, the deplorability of domestic violence and the beauty of love. The government is finally taking steps to make it harder to access porn online, although it will need to go further in time.

Incredibly, our second finding was that a third of women lived in areas where access to contraception is restricted. Limits on what’s available on the NHS and inconvenient opening hours for working women meant that availability of contraception was not nearly as universal as we had thought. Bearing in mind the small cost of prevention, especially with long-acting reversible methods, compared with the price of termination this is a false economy and an inexcusable inequality that needs to be urgently addressed by the new National Commissioning Board.

Other issues include the number of pregnancies conceived under the influence of alcohol, the missed opportunity of contraceptive advice after birth, and the systematic ignoring by public agencies of under-age sex and investigation into consent. We do not deny that there is evidence of cavalier attitudes to sex and abortion amongst some women, but in a country where a woman can have as many abortions on demand as she likes, should we be surprised?

This is not a Party political issue. This is about giving our teenagers the support they are asking for and giving women the chance to control their fertility. We hope all Parties will respond positively to our report.


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