Too much, too young: why is policy obsessed with teenage mums?

Saturday 30 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Courtyard Gallery

When a Conservative election campaign document mistakenly asserted that 54 per cent of girls in deprived areas fall pregnant before 18, it revealed a widespread prejudice that teenage pregnancy is a huge problem. While critics rushed to condemn the mistake (the figure is in fact 5.4 per cent), it is considered common sense today that teenage parenthood is a significant social issue. Some £300 million has been spent on New Labour’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy since 1999, aiming to cut the number of teen pregnancies in half by promoting comprehensive sex education and birth control. Many in academic and policy circles, however, now concede that teenage pregnancy has become over-politicised. It is pointed out that British teenage pregnancy rates have been falling since the 1970s, are lower than countries such as the USA, and that the gloomy predictions of failure attributed to teenage parents and their offspring are not borne out by the evidence. Research even shows that parenthood can give young women and men a sense of maturity and responsibility.

So why are policy makers preoccupied with teenage parenthood? Some argue that state intrusion in the lives of the young, advising them on employability, training them in parenting skills etc, is a cover for a neoliberal agenda of individualising responsibility and coercing young people off benefits. Others see it as undermining individual autonomy and elevating the role of experts: if once society condemned teenage parents for having sex outside wedlock, now it appears young people must conform to new criteria of ‘responsibility’ before they are deemed fit to start a family. If the state can justify intruding into the lives of teenage parents, why not extend that to all ‘inadequate’ parents whatever their age?

Will young parents ever be able to make their own minds up and control their own destiny if we insist on treating them as children? Given that Britain’s teenage pregnancy rate is stable but relatively high and is concentrated in poorer areas, what does it really represent in terms of teenage behaviour, expectations and aspirations? Are teenage parents really doomed to a life of welfare dependency? Should the state step in with compulsory sex education and push them into the ‘right’ reproductive choices?  Or is the whole teenage pregnancy issue a moral panic that has now run its course?

Listen to session audio:


Simon Blake
chief executive, Brook; chair, Compact Voice, the voluntary sector network

Professor Rosalind Edwards
head, Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, London South Bank University; co-editor, Teenage Parenthood: what's the problem?

Dr Lesley Hoggart
principal research fellow, School of Health and Social Care, University of Greenwich; author, Feminist Campaigns for Birth Control and Abortion Rights in Britain

Dr Jan Macvarish
associate lecturer and researcher, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent; author, Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life

Bríd Hehir
writer, researcher and traveller; retired nurse and fundraiser

Produced by
Dr Jan Macvarish associate lecturer and researcher, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent; author, Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life
Bríd Hehir writer, researcher and traveller; retired nurse and fundraiser
Recommended readings
A policy obsession with teenage mothers? Yes please!

The focus on teenage pregnancy is right because the social, health and economic outcomes for teenage parents, particularly those who are very young, and their children remain poor and because, with the right support – housing, education and training, budgeting and so on those who do become young parents can be outstanding parents.

Simon Blake, Independent, 22 October 2010

Why is policy obsessed with teenage pregnancy?

Policy’s engagement with young people from poorer communities has become increasingly focused, not on encouraging their aspirations to reach beyond their disadvantaged circumstances, but by the depressing impulse to cauterise poverty’s ‘toxic’ effects.

Jan Macvarish, Independent , 22 October 2010

Pupils aged five should be taught all about sex: Watchdog's instruction to schools

Children as young as five should be taught about sex, the Government’s controversial health watchdog said last night.

Daniel Martin, Daily Mail, 17 June 2010

Teenage Pregnancy Strategy: Beyond 2010

This document sets out how we want to build on the key planks of the existing Strategy so that all young people receive the information, advice and support they need. (Downloads a pdf)

Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, 24 February 2010

Teenage Parenthood: What's the Problem?

Policy makers and media claim that teenage parenthood ruins young people’s lives and those of their children, as well as threatening wider social and moral breakdown. Yet research increasingly shows that parenthood is not necessarily a disaster for young women and young men, and indeed can sometimes improve their lives. Why is that becoming a mother or father can make sense for and be valued by some young people? And why is that policy makers ignore the research evidence that teenage parenthood is not an inevitable catastrophe?

Claire Alexander, Simon Duncan and Rosalind Edwards, Tufnell Press, 16 February 2010

Teenage pregnancy more opportunity than catastrophe, says study

Authors urge politicians to tackle social disadvantage rather than stigmatising young parenthood

Amelia Gentleman, Guardian, 13 February 2010

The horror of teen motherhood

An ad campaign turns sex into a scary movie

Tracy Clark-Flory, Salon, 27 January 2010

The Real Costs of Teen Motherhood

In this University of Chicago video, a panel of notables examines the implications of teen motherhood from varying perspectives, from policy implications for teen mothers to risks that may include maltreatment or even incarceration.

University of Chicago, 16 January 2010

Teenage Pregnancy: The Making and Unmaking of a Problem

In the last decades of the 20th century, successive British Governments have regarded adolescent pregnancy and childbearing as a significant public health and social problem. Youthful pregnancy was once tackled by attacking young, single mothers but New Labour, through its Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, linked early pregnancy to social exclusion rather than personal morality and aimed, instead, to reduce teenage pregnancy and increase young mothers' participation in education and employment. However, the problematisation of early pregnancy has been contested, and it has been suggested that teenage mothers have been made scapegoats for wider, often unsettling, social and demographic changes.

Lisa Arai, Policy Press; First Edition edition, 22 July 2009

'Sefi is the best mistake I ever made'

Novelist Tilly Bagshawe was a 17-year-old schoolgirl when she became pregnant with her daughter, Sefi. Later, when she took up a place at Cambridge as a single mother, the story made national headlines. With Sefi now 17 herself, mother and daughter talk about their very special relationship

Lorien Hayes, Daily Mail, 23 May 2009

Kids Having Kids: Economic Costs and Social Consequences of Teen Pregnancy

Every year, 400,000 U.S. children under age 18 give birth--a rate twice as high as that in any other advanced country. In this book, leading experts estimate the economic and social impact of such childbearing--to the mothers, the fathers, their children, and society--and discuss strengths and weaknesses of specific policies and programs.

Saul D. Hoffman and Rebecca A. Maynard, Urban Inst Pr, 22 October 2008

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