Taken from this week’s Catholic Universe – 14 July 2013
Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, is currently under pressure from MPs such as Diane Abbot and Caroline Lucas to introduce compulsory Sex and Relationship education into the curriculum reforms that are currently being formulated. One of the factors behind such calls is the claim that compulsory sex education would have an impact upon Britain’s level of teenage pregnancy which is amongst the highest in Western Europe.
There is no evidence to suggest that policy interventions, including compulsory sex education are having any effect whatsoever upon the rate of teenage pregnancy. In 1999, Tony Blair pumped £280 million into the creation of the Teenage Pregnancy Unit which aimed to reduce the number of teen pregnancies by an eventual 50%, five years later, instead of the hoped-for reduction, there was instead a rise of 0.6%, leading the then Chancellor, Ed Balls, to pledge an additional £20 million to the project.
Professor David Paton, chair of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University pointed out in August 2012 that researchers have been unable to find a correlation between Local Authorities judged to have best Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) policies and those with the biggest decreases in the teen pregnancy rate, which has remained static, give or take the odd blip, over the past forty years, which has only decreased by a small amount over the past few years. Whilst the decrease is welcome, it should be noted that there has been an explosion in the teen STD rate over the same period, indicating that while fewer teens may be falling pregnant, many more of them are contracting diseases which could lead to future infertility. This is due to the large uptake of long-acting-reversible contraceptives such as the hormonal implant which will protect against pregnancy but not against diseases. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that despite being armed with the knowledge on how to protect themselves against pregnancy, teenagers are still indulging in as much if not more risky sex, as ever before.
What is required is behaviour change, which conventional wisdom tries to advocate is neither achievable nor necessarily desirable, but countries which boast the lowest rates of teen pregnancies are those whose teenagers become sexually active at a much later age and have fewer partners.
Teenage pregnancy is for the most part undesirable because in the majority of cases it is unplanned, leads to abortion and presents significant barriers to human flourishing, in a society that is neither mentally, socially or economically equipped to deal with young unmarried mothers. Nonetheless we have to ask ourselves tough questions as Catholics as to whether or not we need to re-think some of our attitudes and stop demonising young pregnant teenagers as a measure of all that’s wrong with the world, if we want to re-build a culture of life.
What the teenage pregnancy statistics demonstrate is that young people are being duped into believing that there is such a concept of safe sex devoid of all consequences. According to statistics the contraceptive pill is the method of choice for teenage girls, which has a typical use failure rate of around 9%, a rate that is often higher in inexperienced or unreliable users who are not aware of the contraindications or the importance of taking it at precisely the same time every day. There is a staggering 18-21% failure rate per year when condoms are used as the main method to avoid pregnancy according to the CDC – the American public health agency.
We therefore have to accept that a certain proportion of teenage girls will always fall pregnant in a society that promotes teenage sex as inevitable and morally neutral and whilst not encouraging teen pregnancy as being a status to which one should aspire, we should do whatever is in our power to nurture, support and protect those young girls who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, while at the same time, working to change behavioural assumptions and expectations.
Obsessing over teen pregnancy statistics or the stigma of teen pregnancy does nothing to stem the tide of young girls knocking on the doors of the abortion clinic. To decide to continue with an unplanned pregnancy without a partner or spouse, without a reliable stable income and before one has finished one’s education is not reckless or irresponsible, but a brave act of heroism, of putting another’s life before yours in a culture that advocates abortion as being the only moral and acceptable solution for young girls. Being pregnant can be a terrifying and scary experience even when it is planned and is even more so for the fifteen or sixteen year old as she watches her life and her body spiral out of control.
Campaigns that aim to shame or stereotype young mothers such as the revolting ‘No Teen Pregnancy’ fronted by assorted teen American celebrities should have no place in any Christian institution or organisation. A child born to a young teenage mother is nothing more than a visible proof of a past sexual sin – something of which many of us are guilty of, only perhaps we have not been caught. I have been privileged to get to know many teen mums in the course of my life, all of whom have been an inspiration, not only in terms of how they have parented their child, the strong bond of mutual love has been a joy to witness, but who also went on to later success in terms of career and family lives. We should be supporting, thanking and asking what we can do to help these young women fulfill their potential as mothers, instead of pursing lips and writing them off.
Lest we forget, the mother of the greatest King of us all, was herself according to tradition, a young teenaged unmarried woman.