Old Attitudes Keep British Teens Ignorant, Pregant

Article excerpt

Shona, 16, says she knows how not to become part of an embarrassing British statistic -- the highest teen-age pregnancy rate in western Europe.

Her cropped braids bobbing to music blaring at a central London shelter for homeless teens, Shona blasts the rule at the boys slouching in the the smoke-smudged room: "If he isn't dressed, he isn't getting in!"

That's her well-rehearsed line on the use of condoms.

Social worker Adil Yazdani wanders through the shelter, gently coaxing other young people to join him at a table covered with condoms, lubricants and spermicides, a plaster model of an erect penis, a diaphragm, an IUD.

These are his props for matter-of-fact chats -- not lectures -- on sexual health, normally a low priority among young people who have to scratch for food and shelter every day.

The available-on-request system, which encourages discussions of how to handle real situations, means interested down-and-out teens may be getting more and better advice on sex that the average adolescent in public school.

More teen-age girls become pregnant in Britain each year than in any other country of western Europe: 65.3 per thousand in 1991. In the Netherlands, which has a liberal attitude toward sex, the pregnancy rate among women under 20 is the world's lowest at nine per thousand.

In the United States, the pregnancy rate was 115 per thousand for girls 15 to 19 in 1989, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute of New York, a nonprofit think tank on reproductive research.

"British young people are not any worse or any less intelligent than their counterparts on the Continent, but we as a society deny their sexuality, and that leaves them with no one to turn to for help," said Alison Hadley, spokeswoman for Brook Advisory Centers. "The root of it is that we are not very comfortable with sex at all, much like Americans."

Brook provides sexual health services to young people and runs the program at the shelter for homeless teens.

Teen pregnancies declined in Britain in the 1970s when the birth-control pill was introduced but have risen steadily since. About one-third end in legal abortions.

British health officials set a goal last year of reducing the conception rate among 13- to 15-year-olds from 9.3 per thousand in 1991 to no more than 4.8 per thousand by the end of the decade.

Teen-age pregnancies cause health problems for the mother and baby, as well as increasing their chances of being financially dependent on the state.

British sexual attitudes, as reflected in the media, have hardly budged in decades. The largest-selling newspaper, The Sun, prospers with a mix of bare-breasted women, lurid tales of "bonking" and large doses of moral rectitude.

Like the United States, Britain suffers from poor availability of sex education and contraceptives for young people.

"More openness leads to more careful behavior," said Dr. …