Authors urge politicians to tackle social disadvantage rather than stigmatising young parenthood
Amelia Gentleman guardian.co.uk
Teenage pregnancy is not the symbol of a broken society, as claimed by many politicians, but can be a positive force for good, a study published next week will say.
The research describes how teenage parenthood has been linked by politicians and the media with “moral and cultural breakdown”, but says it should be seen as “more opportunity than catastrophe”.
The study, Teenage Parenthood: What’s the Problem?, challenges preconceptions, arguing that many teenage mothers are motivated to turn their lives around to provide for their children.
Dr Claire Alexander, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, and one of the editors of the study, said: “Stereotypes of such young women as poor and ignorant, dysfunctional and immoral, engaging in casual sex and churning out babies who they cannot care for adequately and do not care about in order to gain access to welfare benefits and council housing, often underlie concerns about teenage pregnancy and parenting. However, these stereotypes are not borne out by the research evidence – in fact, quite the contrary.”
Politicians, the study says, have focused on attacking teenage pregnancy, rather than tackling the social and economic disadvantage that often prefigures it.
Tony Blair described the high teenage birthrate as Britain’s “shameful record”, and in 1999 the government pledged to halve pregnancies for under-18s by mid-2010, launching the teenage pregnancy strategy to address what it perceived as a critical social and economic problem.
Although the 50% goal is far from being met, Alexander points out that there has been a big decline over the past few decades, and in 2007 only 11.4% of conceptions were to women under 20. “Overall, teenage birthrates are now at around the same level as in the 1950s, that supposed ‘golden age’ of family,” she said.
The study questions the notion that all teenage pregnancies are unplanned and cites evidence suggesting that many teenage parents are “positively ambivalent” towards childbirth. It says: “They do not actually plan it, but would quite like a baby and do not use contraception for that reason.”
It concludes that “teenage childbirth does not often result from ignorance or low expectations, it is rarely a catastrophe for young women, and … teenage parenting does not particularly cause poor outcomes for mothers and their children”.
“Our research makes it clear that young parenthood can make sense and be valued and can even provide an impetus for teenage mothers and fathers to strive to provide a better life for their children,” Alexander said.
Politicians are at pains to tackle teenage pregnancy because evidence, such as that provided by Unicef, suggests that teenage mothers will be much more likely to drop out of school, have low or no qualifications, be unemployed or badly paid, become a victim of neglect or abuse, and become involved in drugs, crime and alcohol.
But the study argues that governments should focus on tackling the original disadvantage often experienced by teenage parents, rather than on attacking their decision to become parents. Its research confirms that children born to teenage mothers are born into disadvantage, but suggests that this disadvantage predates the pregnancy and is not the result of it.
The research also found that many teenage mothers express positive attitudes to motherhood, describing how “motherhood has made them feel stronger, more competent, more connected to family and society and more responsible”.
It questions why there is “such a yawning gulf between policy assumptions and the experiences of its subjects” and recommends that policy be focused on improving deprived neighbourhoods and reviving labour markets, rather than on preventing teenage pregnancy.
“Teenage childbearing in itself can be seen as only a minor social problem. It is not the teenage bit which is particularly important … rather it is social and economic disadvantage which produce poor outcomes,” the study argues.
Alexander said: “The [study] explores how this fear of teenage pregnancy is bound up in stereotypes of working-class young women whose out-of-control sexuality has historically concerned the ruling classes as having a dangerous potential for social and moral disorder.”
Fiona Weir, chief executive of Gingerbread, the lone parent support group, said: “Single parents of all ages face prejudice and stigma, but this is particularly the case for teenage mothers. This book is a welcome call to look at the real evidence about what works for parents and children, rather than at the stereotypes.”
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said there had been a reduction of more than 23% in births for under-18s since 1998, to the lowest level for 15 years, and the government was committed to doing more to tackle the issue.
“While many teenage parents manage very well, they and their children are more likely to suffer health, emotional and economic problems. As the vast majority of teenage pregnancies are unplanned, our strategy focuses on giving young people the knowledge, skills and confidence to make positive and informed choices about sexual activity and parenthood,” he said.