Don’t be fooled

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.

10 thoughts on “Don’t be fooled

  1. Teen pregnancies are not the problem, are they? I would have thought promiscuity and abortion are. If there is more sexual activity among teenagers, and there are more teenagers, and there is not a rise in teen pregnancies, then in a sense the sexedders have achieved what they think needs achieving.

    1. Hi Berenike,

      The ‘rates’ shown above are ‘per 1000 girls’ rather than absolute numbers so if there are double the number of girls and double the number of pregnancies then the rate stays the same.

      Contraception brings down the pregnancy rate per sexually active girl, but sex education is making sexual activity among the young more widespread as they are taught (a) that is it morally okay and (b) that it is perfectly “safe”. So as a result the overal pregnancy rate has stayed roughly the same.

      I would be very interested to see how levels of sexual activity compare to levels of contraception use – is it that the availability of contraception just happens to reduce the rate of pregnancy by exactly the same amount that it encourages sexual activity? or is it down to some kind of social feedback mechanism where the presence of a pregnant girl changes the behavior of her friends? Who knows… Perhaps somebody with more knowledge of sociology could suggest a way of studying that kind of thing?

      As the pidge points out, what has not stayed roughly the same are the levels of STDs, this is because while the pill is quite effective at stopping pregnancy (and most sexually active teenage girls are on the pill) condoms are absolutely rubbish at stopping anything. They have a 2-15% failure rate at preventing pregnancy and while you can only get pregnant a few days of the month, you can catch an STD any day of the year.

      So the sexedders have failed to reduce teenage conception rates and STD rates have shot up. Nice one.

  2. Teenage pregnancies are the symptom really. Everything has gone wrong long before a teenager gets pregnant. Why is it that so many girls find themselves in the situation where they are at risk of pregnancy?

    Recently, as a family we have had an experience which has worried us. My niece has suffered sexual harassment at school. She comes from a stable background and in parents, family and friends has lots of examples of what good relationships look like. She has some really good friends and is part of a loving church community. And yet the impact on her was huge and it was all secret. Only the fact that her secrecy sparked of worries and the school having a close eye on their internal e-mail system did it get picked up. The school dealt with it straight away and her parents were able to talk her through the situation and have conversations about the danger signs of an unhealthy relationship. However with a different school it might have been quite a different story. One nearby school states the aim of sex education as ‘allowing children to make their own framework for relationships.’ Given that they aren’t very good at dealing with bullying either what do girls there do, if they face this sort of thing?

    Sexual harassment is quite common for teenage girls and it made us realise that even the most secure of girls are vulnerable. Sex education at her school does do healthy relationships etc (although higher up the school) but by the time a girls is flagged up because she is pregnant or has STD it is too late. We have a culture that sees teenage sex as inevitable ‘so we better make sure they do it safely?’ This puts children at risk. The impact of a short and swiftly dealt with incident still rumbles on. The emotional fallout for those where bad relationships don’t get picked up must be awful.

  3. Difficult to be anything other than pessimistic about this, since, in most formerly Christian countries, chastity is regarded as an aberration.

    Vested interests – the abortion, contraceptive, sex-education, and enertainment industries – are heavily invested in promoting sexual activity and, I guess, reap hugh profits from it. Who can stand against them?

  4. There are two things that I find puzzling. The one is from a Catholic perspective and the other is from the secular/Government perspective.

    From a Catholic perspective there is surely a big difference between a married female aged 17 getting pregnant and an unmarried 17 year old female getting pregnant. Yet the figures don’t differentiate between these two situations. All teenage pregnancies are seen as a problem. Why else would it matter if the number of teenage pregnancies went up or down? Surely, from a Catholic perspective, what matters is whether or not the number of unmarried teenage pregnancies goes up or down?

    From a secular/Government perspective why are any teenage pregnancies seen as a problem? Seeing them as a problem is surely ‘judgemental’ when all the emphasis these days is against being ‘judgmental’. All the emphasis of secular/Government propaganda is on seeing just about any situation as being acceptable these days. We mustn’t see single mothers as some sort of problem so why do these same people see teenage pregnancies (at least as far as 16-18 year-olds are concerned) as a problem? From the perspective of the ‘sex-educators’ the only problem teenage pregnancies are the ones which are not wanted. But the statistics don’t distinguish between ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’ teenage pregnancies.

    So are raw teenage pregnancy statistics of any use to either of the above two groups?

    1. From a Catholic perspective the stats are useful for showing the effectiveness of the governments own sex education programmes at achieving the government’s own stated goals. It is clear that sex education does not do what it claims to do – so we can ask what is it doing?

      We also know that we do not live in a culture where many girls are married at the age of seventeen so we can assume that removing married seventeen year olds would make little difference.

      From a government perspective – single mothers are expensive…

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