I am in the process of writing a comprehensive post on strategies to combat teenage pregnancy, as a result of which I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in data from the Office of National Statistics. Of particular interest was the teenage pregnancy rates over the last quarter of a century. Both previous administrations promised to halve the unacceptably high levels of teenage pregnancy; the Labour government put an extra £280 million over 10 years into the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, which involved making the morning after pill, condoms and sex education more easily available. The aim was to cut numbers by 15% by 2005 and by 50% by 2010. The Tories don’t get off scott free here either, they promised to halve the numbers when they were in power in the 90s and it was with this aim that compulsory sex education was put onto the National Curriculum in 1993.
Professor David Paton of Nottingham University is widely regarded as the expert in the economics of teen pregnancies. Whilst looking at some of his research, I noted that he stated that the levels of teenage pregnancy had remained static since the 70s. I was slightly sceptical of this claim, given that every year the various sexual health charities seem to laud the ever decreasing rates of teenage pregnancy and claim that it is proof of their “evidence-based” approach. Give children plenty of access to sex education, contraception and abortion and the rates will fall. That said, organisations such as Brook, who incidentally have a contract with the NHS and are paid to supply free contraceptives and contraceptive advice, will of course have a vested interest in pushing this line.
The latest statistics from the ONS website look encouraging. The provisional 2009 under-18 conception rate for England was 38.2 per 1000 girls aged 15-17, a decrease of 5.7% from the 2008 rate and the lowest rate for nearly 30 years. Since 1998, the under-18 conception rate has fallen by 18.1%. Wow, fantastic, our strategy is working say Brook, BPAS, Marie Stopes et al. The teenage pregnancy figures are falling, and yet you’ve got rid of the Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory group in the bonfire of the quangos. Oh no, we’ve done so well and now you are getting rid of us, when in fact we need MORE funding to continue our good work further.
Actually this rate of conceptions for the under 18s is misleading; it only includes the age group 15-17, the age bracket of 13-15 having been split out and dealt with separately, thus giving a skewed picture. The provisional 2009 under-16 conception rate for England was 7.5 per 1000 – a decrease of 4% from the 2008 rate, and representing an overall reduction of 15% from the 1998 rate of 8.8. per 1000. It doesn’t need me to point out that a year on year decrease of 4% is risible, the rate decreasing from 7.8 to 7.5 pregnancies per 1,000 girls, although any decrease is good news.
But all in all, according to the ONS figures the teen pregnancy rates have been going down since 1998 which goes to show that “evidence-based” policy works and we need to have more sex education, more contraception and more abortion. Right? (Incidentally the numbers of abortions being carried on the under 16s and under 18s has increased by over 10% in each category over the past ten years, which does not correlate to the decrease in conception rates. Slightly fewer girls may be conceiving however considerably more of them are choosing to abort the pregnancy. Abortions have risen by a third since 1997).
Before we all throw our spare pennies into the nearest Marie Stopes collecting tin and write letters of support to Dr Petra, it’s worth looking at the 1998 figures in further detail, given that they are always used as a benchmark, both by the previous government and by the sexual health charities. The 1998 figures are unusually high for two reasons, firstly following a scare about third generation contraceptive pills, which suggested that users might have an increased risk of deep vein thrombosis. BPAS estimated that this scare accounted for an extra 29,291 abortions. The other reason that the figures show a slight spike is due to a change in methodology. The ONS implemented a new algorithm in 1999 which caused a slight decrease in the previous figures. In any event the rates of under 16s conceptions were higher in 2007, than they were in 1999.
If the answer is as simple as more education and more access to contraception and abortion, then surely we should see a marked decrease in the levels of teenage pregnancies at least since 1993 when this was put on the National Curriculum and even more since 1998 when Labour pumped £280 million into their Teenage Pregnancy Strategy.
Here’s a chart showing the rate of conceptions for all under 18s, since 1976. There has not been much change, levels are currently slightly above those in the seventies when contraception was not taught about in schools, access to clinics was more difficult, under 16s could not get advice without their parents’ consent and there were less methods available than there are today, the morning-after pill only coming into use in the mid-nineties.
£280 million well spent? Or throwing good money after bad? The decision to invite LIFE to sit on the new sexual health advisory panel is not such a bad idea after all, particularly when LIFE’s expressed aim is to reduce the amount of teenage pregnancy and abortion. If we are talking about that holy cow “evidence-based” policy, it seems like the totem of more contraceptive education and services is nothing more than self-serving ideology. And if more evidence were required, it was reported this week that a scheme providing free morning after pills for under 16s in Wales has had little impact.
Time to go back to the drawing board.