Battle in Print: How teenage pregnancy became redefined as a social problem

Jan Macvarish, 14 October 2010

For over a decade, Britain’s falling rates of teenage pregnancy have functioned as important evidence society is being dragged into the abyss by the dreadful behaviour of young people. Previously, teenage pregnancy was considered the small problem of some under 16s with inadequate self restraint or contraceptive nous. Policymakers saw its negative side in the limitations it placed on young women’s opportunities, and the welfare costs of maintaining poor, single mothers.

Yet from 1999, New Labour’s social exclusion agenda redefined ‘the problem of teenage pregnancy’, and expanded our perception of its scale. All teenage pregnancies, not just the youngest ones, were categorised as a problem. The inclusion of older teenagers, who are far more likely to proceed with a pregnancy than their younger counterparts, redefined the issue from one of uncontrolled sex to one of uncontrolled motherhood.

The discussion surrounding teenage pregnancy therefore involves important questions. How should we address poverty and inequality? How should the boundaries of adulthood and childhood be defined? How and why should the family be defended? How should adults guide children through adolescence and into adulthood? Unfortunately, when these concerns are expressed through the prism of teenage motherhood, adult society too often displaces its responsibility for resolving them onto the behaviour of children and young people.

Redefining social problems

The politicisation of teenage pregnancy involves a return to explanations of poverty and inequality that begin from considering behaviour at an individual level. On the one hand, teenage pregnancy is strongly associated with social disadvantage. Unsurprisingly, girls with a realistic expectation of positive opportunities in life are less likely to let themselves conceive and, if they do, more likely to opt for abortion. On the other hand, in a reversal of causation, policy has treated teenage pregnancy as a cause rather than a symptom of restricted opportunities. Solutions to the problems of poor communities have become increasingly targeted at the intimate choices of private life.

For example, the Family Nurse Partnership programme (1) piloted in the UK under New Labour (2) but popular with key members of the new coalition (3), presumes young mums need intense surveillance and support. From the fifth month of pregnancy until the child is two years old, the teenager (or in the original US programme, low income first time mums of any age) is visited in her home every two weeks by a health visitor. The health visitor is tasked with training her in appropriate prenatal behaviour, guiding her familial and intimate relationships, shaping her educational and employment choices and training her in ‘healthy’ parenting practices.

The cross-party influence of MPs Graham Allen and Ian Duncan Smith demonstrates the growing consensus that poor communities’ only hope is ‘early intervention’. Early intervention is a magically powerful formula for a better society, It’s built on bogus brain science, discredited American policy experiments and a slippery grasp of the distinction between the mental and emotional damage caused by extreme child abuse and the ordinary difficulties of tough lives.

In the 2008 report for the Centre for Social Justice, ‘Early Intervention: Good parents, great kids, better citizens’ (3), there is no mention of preventing teenage pregnancy. Rather, 0-18 year olds ‘at risk’ of social disadvantage should be ‘intervened on’, so when they do become parents before the age of 20, they’ll be ‘child-ready’. This demonstrates a staggering short-circuiting of any sense of human potential. People are effectively given up on by the age of 18. The focus swiftly shifts from the quality of their adult lives, to the threat posed by their offspring. In this way, concern over teenage pregnancy plays an important role in legitimating increasingly intrusive and degrading responses to genuine social needs.

Infantilising adulthood

Once, young mothers were considered a problem because they were less likely to be married. Now, they’re problematic because they’re too young to parent. Underpinning recent family policy is a belief the years 0-3 are the most important in a person’s life. This strongly deterministic, one-chance-only dogma provides a rationale for ‘early intervention’ prior to any evidence of actual neglect or harm, based on ‘risk-factors’ such as maternal age. Whilst an out of wedlock pregnancy in the past could be resolved by a shotgun wedding, a teenage pregnancy today, whether intended or not, is an ongoing problem rectified only through expert guidance. Even if the mother is married to the father, both can be targeted for intervention, as teenage fathers are increasingly brought into the frame of policy attention.

The pregnant teenager’s transition to parenthood has become detached from a transition to autonomous adulthood. But we should be wary of the infantilisation of those teenagers who decide to become parents. Research tells us many teenagers who become mothers do so precisely because they’re hungry for an opportunity to attain adult status by taking responsibility for their ‘mistake’ (5, 6, 7).  We do them no favours by labelling them ‘vulnerable’ and their babies ‘at-risk’.

Teenagers occupy the awkward position of being neither child nor adult. At a time when we’re uneasy about the boundaries between the two, it’s hardly surprising ‘children having children’ become the poster girls for our confusion.  Ironically, the more we erode the meaning of parenthood as an intrinsically adult occupation, the more likely less mature teenagers will see having a baby as a way of receiving recognition and support for their vulnerability. This undermines parenthood as a route for achieving true adult status,  experiencing the benefits of taking responsibility and exercising autonomy.

Universalising the problem of parenting

Just as the problem of teenage pregnancy became expanded from the under-16s to the under-20s, so the definition of ‘problem parents’ has been extended to meaningless proportions. The social exclusion agenda shifted the focus of concern about inequality from those actually living in poverty to those ‘at-risk’ from its effects (9).

Again, this both redefined and expanded the problem. It dressed up conservative concerns about a growing underclass in the clothing of a commitment to social justice for the ‘excluded’. New Labour distanced itself from the previous Conservative government’s aggressive rhetorical attacks on particular groups of parents, most notably single mothers. Yet in doing this, it further aggrandised the scale of social problems by universalising concern with a ‘parenting deficit’ until any sense of proportion has been lost.

The net of vulnerability has been cast wider still. ‘Middle-class’ has come to mean those who share a concern over the problem of parenting, such that they welcome state advice and interventions into family life. Those who reject or are oblivious to the new rules of parenting are defined as ‘hard-to-reach’ and ‘vulnerable’. They’re therefore in need of more persistent and aggressive attempts to convince them that parenting does not, in fact, ‘come naturally’. Teenage pregnancy has provided the terrain on which many of these arguments have been forged and won. It has prepared the way for previously unthinkable intrusions into private life and undermining parental autonomy.

Disoriented parents increasingly interpret their family life through the lens of externally generated concerns. These range from ‘five-a-day’ to officially sanctioned behaviour management techniques, such as reward charts and the naughty step (9). The parent-child relationship is rethought as one naturally defined by harm rather than care. It requires skills more than love.

Meanwhile, the politicisation of parenting sharpens the eyes of defensive mums and dads to the misdemeanours of other parents. They are therefore more inclined to accept a disciplinary approach from institutions, such as schools. For example, schools may require them to record their ‘parenting’ activities in the homework diary and expose their children’s lunchboxes to the scrutiny of dinner ladies or even Year 6 pupils. In this respect, we have all become ‘teenage’ parents. This is regardless of whether we’re ‘good girls’ eager to prove to teacher that we’re getting it right, or ‘bad girls’ presumed incompetent of raising the next generation without guidelines and formal instruction, and sulkily objecting to feeling ‘judged’.

Negating adult guidance and moral authority

The politicisation of teenage pregnancy is often challenged on the grounds it is a ‘moral panic’ concerning sexual behaviour, unmarried motherhood or underclass welfare dependence. In fact, there is little ‘morality’ in the discussion about teenage pregnancy.

In moving away from a ‘morally blaming’ approach but remaining at the level of individual behaviour, social exclusion psychologised rather than moralised social phenomenon. To avoid alienating liberal supporters and deterring the ‘hard-to-reach’ from engaging with state services, New Labour shied away from stigmatising teenage parents with an ‘old-fashioned’ moral discourse of marriage and sex. Instead, it problematised teenage pregnancy through the language of health, psycho-social risks and ‘socio-economic outcomes’ (10). The move away from moralising about sexual behaviour is welcome, and few would relish a return to coerced adoption and ‘ruined reputations’. However, the centrality of teenage pregnancy, coupled with the way adults in authority now relate to young people, displays a profound state of moral confusion.

Preventing teenage pregnancy has become the lynchpin of the argument for moving sex, relationships and parenting education to a more central position in the national curriculum and organising youth-oriented community projects around sexual health. These developments are usually justified by the idea Britain has a particularly dysfunctional attitude to sex that needs correcting for us all to develop ‘healthy’ sexualities. Teenagers are encouraged to ‘open up’ about sex in semi-public settings such as the classroom or the youth club. They’re exposed to images of advanced genital infections in a crude attempt at deterrence. The argument is increasingly made that they need instruction in ‘good parenting’, since they’re presumed to have been denied exposure to it within their own families.

The tendency to medicalise and instrumentalise teenage sexual development means the alleged threat to society from ill-parented babies, along with disease, becomes the rationale for guiding adolescent sexuality. This is starkly opposed to fostering more positive meanings of love, pleasure or intimate experimentation. At the same time, parents’ commendable sexual reticence and attachment to privacy is pathologised by sexual health educators as evidence of a lack of confidence or skills in discussing sexual matters (11). The dysfunction presumption negates the claims of adults other than ‘experts’ to the possession of greater wisdom and experience of sex and relationships, undermining their authority in guiding their sons and daughters’ development. 

Teenage mothers have achieved a negative iconic status at a time when rates of teenage pregnancy have reached consistently lowered levels both in the USA and the UK (5, 12). There are complex reasons behind this, making it a fascinating case study in contemporary social thinking.

This Battle in Print is an attempt to stand back from the arguments about how teenage pregnancy should be dealt with. It considers how, as the teenager’s body has become seen as an inappropriate vessel for a baby, it has become the perfect vessel for the social pessimism and the political and moral disorientation that underpins contemporary policy making.


Jan Macvarish, researcher and lecturer, Centre for Health Service Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury; contributor to Teenage Parenthood: What’s the Problem? by Duncan, Edwards and Alexander.


(1) Nurse-family partnership
(2) Health-led parenting support, DCMS, 15 June 2009
Early intervention: good parents, great kids, better citizens , Centre for Social Justice,
(4) Bruer, JT. (1999). The Myth of the First Three Years: A new understanding of early brain development and lifelong learning. New York: The Free Press
(5) Arai, L. (2009) Teenage Pregnancy: The making and unmaking of a problem. Bristol: The Policy Pres
(6) Coleman, L. and Cater, S. (2006) ‘Planned’ teenage pregnancy: perspectives of parents from disadvantaged backgrounds in England. Bristol: The Policy Press
(7) Macvarish J. and Billings J. (2010). Challenging the irrational, amoral and anti-social construction of the ‘teenage mother’. In Duncan, S., Edwards, R. and Alexander, C. (Eds.) Teenage parenting – what’s the problem? London: Tufnell Press
(8) Dodds, A. (2009). Families ‘at risk’ and the Family Nurse Partnership: the intrusion of risk into social exclusion policy. Journal of Social Policy, 38: 3
(9) Bristow, J (2009). Standing up to Supernanny. Exeter: Imprint Academic
(10) Macvarish, J. (2010) The Effect of ‘Risk-Thinking’ on the Contemporary Construction of Teenage Motherhood, Health, Risk and Society, Vol.12, No. 4, August 2010,  313-322
(11) Parents ‘Failing Sex Education Duty, The Times, 12 April, 2007
(12) Luker, K. (1997). Dubious Conceptions: The Politics of Teenage Pregnancy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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