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Caroline Farrow: The Labour Government's strategy to dramatically reduce teenage pregnancies failed miserably; the Coalition should take a more robust - even judgemental - approach

Picture 3 Caroline Farrow is author of the Catechesis of Caroline blog.

Imagine if the Government introduced lessons regarding safe drinking as part of the National Curriculum and poured millions of pounds into a scheme providing free access to alcohol in order to combat the increasing scourge of teenage drinking.

There would understandably be uproar from all quarters. The strategy would backfire spectacularly; encouraged by their teachers, increasing numbers of teenagers would begin to experiment with alcohol under the misapprehension that this was perfectly safe and acceptable, with disastrous consequences.

Far–fetched though it sounds, this is exactly what happened when the last government attempted to reduce rates of teen conception. In 1999 Tony Blair pumped £280 million into the creation of the Teenage Pregnancy Unit, which aimed to reduce the numbers of teen pregnancies by 15% in 2005 and by 50% in 2010.  According to statistics published by the ONS, in 1999 there were a total of 49,900 teen conceptions.

Five years later, instead of the hoped-for reduction, the rate had risen by 0.6% to 50,200. In 2009, when it became clear that this figure was little more than a pipe-dream, Ed Balls announced an extra £20.5 million to be spent on contraceptive services. The latest full-year figures available from the ONS, show that in 2009 teen conceptions numbered 45,500, a risible 8.8% reduction on the 1999 numbers.

Organisations such as Brook Advisory - who receive NHS funding for providing contraceptives to teens - claim that this is proof that the strategy is working and all that is needed is more money.  Gill Frances, chairman of the axed quango, the Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group (TPIAG), stated:

“We warn government that teenage pregnancy rates will rise again unless there is sustained commitment and investment in contraceptive services, along with better sex and relationships education.”

It is worth noting that when quoting from the ONS, the TPIAG only included data from the under-18 cohort, which presents a more optimistic picture of the overall trend than when the numbers from the 13-15 age cohort are included.

The reality is that give or take the odd blip, such as the 1998 rise in overall conceptions following a scare over the third generation contraceptive pill, levels of teenage pregnancy have remained static since the late 1970s.  Given the rise in population since then, the most logical conclusion that can be drawn is that thanks to this expensive strategy, teens are engaging in underage sex in ever increasing numbers, encouraged by sex education and free and unfettered access to contraception.

Sex is being promoted as a risk- and consequence-free activity, whilst the reality is that the phenomenon of risk compensation is occurring. Teens are adjusting their sexual behaviour, either increasing it or commencing it at an earlier age, in response to the idea that sex is without consequences. Individuals will act less cautiously in situations where they feel that there is less risk or that they are protected.

If more proof were needed, one only needs to look at the rising number of STIs amongst teens. Rates of first time diagnoses of syphilis, chlamydia, herpes and warts rose by 152%, 25%, 67% and 27% between 2001 and 2010 according to statistics from the Health Protection Agency. It seems as though schemes providing underage girls with free access to the morning after pill via pharmacies, such as the one recently highlighted by BBC Wales, have absolutely no impact on the teenage pregnancy rates, yet cost £300,000 a year to implement. Professor Paton of Nottingham University who is widely regarded as a leading expert in the economics of teen pregnancies, recently published a study which suggested that in areas where the morning after pill is freely available from pharmacies, STI rates rose by 12% in under 16s and 5% in under 18s.

Of equal concern are the rising abortion rates in the various age cohorts. In 1999, 52% of pregnant teens aged 13-15 aborted their pregnancy, in 2009 this number had risen to 59% down from a previous high of 62%. In the 15-17 age cohort, numbers rose from 43% in 1999 to 49% in 2009. And yet, say the likes of BPAS and Marie Stopes, access to contraception and abortion needs to be even easier.  Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of BPAS says that targets on reducing the numbers of abortions should be abolished:

“We have argued against targets to reduce abortion numbers and rates, stressing that such targets can most easily be achieved by making abortion less accessible, by reducing provision and reducing funding. While we advocate and deliver improvements in contraceptive services, we insist that abortion must remain as a back-up to birth control.”

It is worth noting that over 91% of abortions that are performed at both BPAS and Marie Stopes are NHS-funded. No doubt these institutions are also aware that an estimated 50% of live births are unplanned, contraception is notoriously unreliable on a macro level. It is not surprising that these groups wish to see teen pregnancy and abortion targets scrapped.

In 2007, the BMJ published an evidence-based review of the then government’s teenage pregnancy strategy. A key finding was that “knowledge may not be an important determinant, but that relationships with parents and school, as well as expectations for the future, may have important influences on teenage pregnancy”. Low knowledge of sexual health was not seen as being a significant risk factor.

Socio-economic risk factors are significant but of paramount importance, however, is ease of communication with parents and guardians, which is a major factor amongst girls, but has no impact on the sexual behaviour of boys. This is the main difference between the Netherlands, which boasts low teen pregnancy rates, and the UK. There is no discernible difference between knowledge and access to contraception in the Netherlands, nor is, as often claimed, this down to relaxed and liberal attitudes towards sex.

It seems that the much-derided Nadine Dorries has a salient point when it comes to her identification of girls as needing additional guidance in the area of sex education. Whilst boys should not be excluded from being taught about the consequences of sexual behaviour, it is unlikely to have much effect.  Parents are the primary educators of children, nevermore so than in the areas of ethics and morality and if the state has a role to play, this should simply involve the passing on of information. Labour MP Chris Bryant’s attempts to deprive parents of their rights to remove children from sex education lessons are not only iniquitous in that they shift responsibility from the parents to the state, but are also clearly flawed.

The idea that teenagers should be able to have sex as young as they like, as often as they like and with whom they like, so long as they take “responsible” contraceptive methods is the cause of much social ill. It seems that sex education in its present format is proving counter-productive. The Coalition has already taken some steps forward in terms of axing the sex education quangos and inviting LIFE, a group who have no ulterior financial motive and whose stated intentions are to reduce the numbers of teenage pregnancies and abortions, to sit on the new sexual health forum. If they are serious about making significant inroads into the trends regarding the spiralling rates of teenage pregnancy, then encouraging young people to delay sexual activity should be promoted as the ideal choice in schools.

No more money should be directed to organisations with vested interests, and parents should be taught and empowered to discuss these issues with their children. It is in a school’s best interests to reduce the number of sexually active children and thus schools should be running programmes to encourage and involve active parental participation and support in all areas of PSHE, instead of attempting to exclude them from the process.

While accidents will invariably happen, it is not the Government’s role to facilitate them. No Conservative should shy away from being judgemental when it comes to underage teen sex and pregnancy, no matter how unpalatable this may seem. The only wise judgement is that teenage sex is foolish, unlawful and should be firmly discouraged.


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