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Where are the schoolgirl mothers?

There is no epidemic of teenage pregnancy, just an out-of-control concern about it.

Ellie Lee

Topics Politics

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Judging by the UK press coverage over the past week, you’d think 14- and 15-year-olds across Britain were popping out babies like there is no tomorrow.

Certainly Sunday Times columnist Minette Marrin has the impression that there is an epidemic of teenage motherhood. In an otherwise insightful article about the contradictions of motherhood today, she talks of ‘the fast-growing contingent of gymslip mothers and irresponsible teenagers who happily get pregnant, again and again, careless of how to support their babies’ (1). Her case in point is Courtney Cassidy, mother of three by the age of 17, who she used as the example to show how feckless and irresponsible teenagers have become.

Courtney Cassidy has been the subject of several articles, all of which have made the same point as Marrin – although in less elegant prose. According to Sun columnist Jane Moore, Cassidy is the personification of the rising rate of teenage pregnancies, and the sign that the government’s’ ‘over-liberal approach to sex education’ isn’t working. Sue Carrol, of the Mirror, described her as ‘just one of the 39,286 teenagers who became pregnant in 2002’.

So there we have it. We can be sure something is badly wrong because more teenagers than ever are getting pregnant, and having babies. Or are they? It’s a pity all these columnists do not spend more time doing some research for their articles before pontificating about teenage motherhood. Because if they did, they would find that the truth is very different.

Over the past 30 years, the trend in Britain has been a declining number of teenage conceptions, and a higher proportion of conceptions ending in abortion. In 2000, about 98,000 women under 20 became pregnant, and just over 38,000 of these pregnancies ended in abortion. In 1972, the figures were 130,000 and 28,000 respectively. In other words there are fewer teenage mums now than there used to be. The fertility rate for the under-20s fell between 1992 and 2002, from 31.7 to 27 births per 1000 women of this age.

And the majority of babies born to young women are to those aged 17, 18 or 19. Relatively few 14-year-olds are getting pregnant and having babies (in 2001, of a total 57,221 births to the under-20s, there were about 900 babies born to those 14 and under, and 3500 in total to those under 16). What has really gone up is not incidence of teenage motherhood, but concern about it.

In some ways this is an old story. Young women having babies and bringing them up without a father have been held up as a symbol of moral crisis for many years – especially when they are claiming benefits and living in council houses. In the 1980s and 90s, single mothers often featured in discussions about what was wrong with society, and as a result ideas about the ‘wrong kind’ of women (read not middle class) having babies came strongly to the political foreground.

Of course, since that time it has become less and less acceptable to have a go at ‘single mothers’ as a group, as it has become apparent that this category clearly includes people other than poor women from estates. It is maybe for this reason that concerns about the ‘wrong kind’ of women having children has become increasingly focused on those of young age. There is less prospect of offending the middle classes, since teenage pregnancy rates correlate strongly with social deprivation, and those teenagers that become pregnant and go on to have a baby, not an abortion, are likely to be from less well-off areas.

There is a new issue too. Such concerns about poor young women breeding have been further fuelled by the fact that fertility in general is falling. Indeed, this is one of Marrin’s key bugbears. While fertility rates generally fall, ‘the only people who are embracing motherhood with unworried enthusiasm in this country are, of course, the wrong ones’, she argues, especially ‘schoolgirl mothers’ (2).

It is this ‘fertility gap’ that lies behind much contemporary reaction to teenage motherhood, including the reaction by the government. Policymakers and newspaper columnists tend to inhabit a world in which having kids has become a scary thing to do – an apparently overwhelming responsibility best put off until the time is, without a shadow of a doubt, right. And the scariness of it is reinforced by messages coming through in health and social policy, which present a picture in which pregnancy becomes something that must always be planned (not just wanted), and caring for a child something only to be undertaken following payment of careful attention to professional advice and preferably attendance at a series of parenting classes. Young women who do not really use contraception, continue unplanned pregnancies, and look at having a baby as no big deal are a very long way away from all of this.

These factors, rather than any rise in teenage fertility, are really responsible for the picture now painted of the lives of teenagers. It is concerns about the ‘lower orders’ having children, coupled with paranoia about parenthood, that make young women like Courtney Cassidy so despised by those who write about her, and allow her experience to be used by journalists as evidence for the existence of a fictional world in which teenagers on estates are breeding like rabbits.

It may not be ‘good’ to have a baby at 16. But this inaccurate and poisonous view of the world is much more of a problem than the fact that young women from less well-off sectors of society continue to have children.

Ellie Lee is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent, author of Abortion, Motherhood and Mental Health: Medicalizing Reproduction in the United States and Great Britain (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA), and coordinator of Pro-Choice Forum.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Spare me all the flowers – a mum’s place is in the wrong, Sunday Times (London), 21 March 2004

(2) Spare me all the flowers – a mum’s place is in the wrong, Sunday Times (London), 21 March 2004

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Topics Politics

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