Academic journal article Capital & Class

Teenage Pregnancy: The Government's Dilemma

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Teenage Pregnancy: The Government's Dilemma

Article excerpt

Introduction.

The phenomenon of teenage pregnancy has recently eclipsed lone parenthood as a focus of media and state concern, and of moral outrage. Although these two terms are often used interchangeably in politics and the media, Government policy has focused on tackling the 'problem' of teenage pregnancy. The latest case of a twelve year old pregnant girl, who claimed not to know who was the father of her baby, echoed earlier cases which had precipitated intense moral panic. Two years ago the news of a twelve year old Rotherham girl giving birth in the bathroom, coupled with the news of another pregnant twelve year old in Sheffield, prompted much press hysteria and a horrified Tony Blair to call for a 'new moral purpose' in Britain (Daily Express 30-8-1999). The recent hype is, in many ways, misleading because the actual rates have not in fact changed significantly since the 1970s, including the rates for under-sixteen year olds. Teenage pregnancy rates in other European counties have, however, fallen during the same pe riod. It is this fall that 'New Labour' has decided to attempt to emulate.

The Labour Government has significantly raised the political profile of teenage sexual behaviour. Teenage sexual health was prioritised in Our Healthier Nation (Department of Health 1998). This was followed by the Social Exclusion Unit's Teenage Pregnancy report, described as the first stage in a mission 'to develop an integrated strategy to cut rates of teenage parenthood...and propose better solutions to combat the risk of social exclusion for vulnerable teenage parents and their children' (SEU 1999: 2). Since then a 'national campaign' has been launched, the Teenage Pregnancy Unit established, local coordinators for the national campaign appointed, new guidance on sex education in schools introduced and new support packages for young parents issued. The most recent figures show that between 1998 and 1999 the teenage conception rate fell from 64.9 to 62.8 conceptions per thousand women aged 15-19 (ONS 2001: 86). It is clearly too early to judge whether this is the start of a downward tend.

Blair's 'moral purpose' is now being addressed, but the issue is far from straightforward. Continuous conflict and controversy surrounds debate on teenage pregnancy and teenage sexual behaviour generally. This debate is dominated by attempts to claim the moral high ground. The Labour Government's decision to allow pharmacists to supply women with emergency contraceptive pills without the need to see a doctor--a move designed to help young people avoid unplanned pregnancies--has been consistently attacked by conservative forces (including papers such as the Daily Mail) as a move against family values. At the beginning of May 2001 an anti-abortion organisation, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) launched an unsuccessful legal challenge to that provision arguing that the pills assist in the 'procurement of miscarriage' and provision is therefore illegal under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Their argument that emergency contraception constitutes an abortion, is now heard at scho ols around the country as some parents try and prevent school nurses issuing emergency contraceptive pills.

Conservative middle England, outraged both at the phenomenon of teenage pregnancy but also at policy measures introduced to try and reduce the teenage conception rate, continues to resist attempts to provide young people with the sexual information, resources and knowledge they need to negotiate sexual relations. This was particularly evident in the consultation period for revised guidelines on sex and relationships education. The Government responded to the family rights lobby by ensuring a framework stressing the importance of marriage, family life, love and stable relationships in bringing up children, whilst David Blunkett declared that sex education must be taught 'within a moral context' (Daily Express 30-8-1999). …

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