Is Britain a teenage ‘baby factory’?

Behind the national outcry over the young Derby mothers lies a concern about the 'wrong kinds' of people breeding.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

What do you think about the ‘baby factory’ in Derby, England – the three sisters who all had babies in their teens?

Come on, you must have a view. Beverley Hughes, UK children and family minister, thinks that the pregnancy of the girls at the ages of 12, 14 and 16 was ‘a tragic loss of opportunity’. Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips thinks it ‘illustrates the moral degradation that is bringing increasing sections of our society to its knees’. The estranged father of two of the girls said that their mother was ‘irresponsible’, and some of the family’s neighbours agreed (if you know the family and have a story to tell, email [email protected]).

For her part, the hapless mother of the girls, Julie Atkins, said that it was schools’ fault: ‘More and more kids are getting pregnant younger and younger and sex education needs to start a lot earlier.’ Later she changed her mind: ‘It is not the school, it is the government that needs to help more.’

Public debate seems to be approximating the Jerry Springer Show. This family’s case provides no special insight into national trends or the state of Britain today – any more than the man who left his girlfriend for a Labrador does. The family has become a national freakshow, to be jeered at and reprimanded. And, given that the tots are far from newborns, it’s last year’s story anyway.

Everybody took up Julie Atkins for blaming schools. But her statement that ‘more and more girls are getting pregnant younger and younger’ was accepted wholesale. It’s a common view that teenagers are wantonly dropping sprogs without a second thought, and that this shows the decline of ‘civilised values’.

In fact, teenage births have been falling for some time now. In 1966, there were 86,700 births to women under 20; in 2003, this number had fallen to 44,200. Of the 97,100 women under 20 who became pregnant in 2002, most of these were aged 18 and 19 – otherwise known as adults – who had been over the age of consent for at least two years. Only 7,900 were under 16, and a large portion of these conceptions – 55.6 per cent – ended in abortion (1).

The more teenage births go down, though, the more everybody scrabbles for ever more ludicrous solutions to the ‘crisis’. The government has pumped £40million a year into its teenage pregnancy strategy, but is now saying that its policies have ‘reached a sticking point’, and is calling upon parents to talk to their children about sex. Although ministers didn’t prescribe a specific ‘birds and the bees script’, they did suggest that ‘parents could start by asking their youngsters about sex education lessons at school, and perhaps discussing peer pressure about fashion’. Yet that doesn’t mean the government is going to stop trying to alter teenagers’ sex lives. In fact, it’s actually set a target to reduce the conception rate among under-18s in England to around 23 per 1,000 by 2010 (compared to 46.6 per 1,000 in 1998).

Meanwhile, the local authority umbrella group, the London Child Protection Committee, is taking a more personal approach. In May 2005 it advised professionals who discover that a teenager is sexually active to investigate for signs of abuse. Abuse, in its terms, includes ‘power imbalances in teenagers’ sexual relationships’, such as one partner having more sexual experience, or one partner trying to keep the relationship secret. The body includes in its remit legal and consenting relationships between 16- to 18-year-olds.

It’s just not the case that teenagers don’t know about sex, or that parents don’t talk to their kids. The days when mothers had to warn their daughters about the ‘something’ that would happen on their wedding night are long gone. When parents do mention sex to their kids, they often find out that their kids know more than they do. Nor is it the case that teenagers don’t get sex education in schools. Sex and relationship education has moved to the forefront of the school curriculum, sometimes promoted on a par with subjects such as English and maths.

While it is certainly not great that a small number of girls are pregnant under 16, all these policies will make not a jot of difference. Teenagers are unlikely to model their bedroom behaviour on advice from their teachers – and, you might say, a good thing too. Studies time after time have shown that sex education has little impact on the rate of teenage pregnancy.

The case is discussed as a ‘tragedy’, but what exactly is being objected to? The girls concerned seem to see their pregnancies as some kind of achievement, not a source of shame. Clearly, when getting pregnant is the way some young girls prove themselves, there are broader problems with the kinds of goals and aspirations society is offering. But this isn’t helped by finger-pointing and blaming individuals.

Perhaps one concern about the ‘baby factory’ in Derby is that these are the wrong kind of people breeding. Melanie Phillips comes straight out with it, pointing the finger of blame at the members of ‘what has been unpleasantly termed an “underclass”’. These aren’t the kinds of people who have babies in a career break, after a period of long deliberation during which they received financial and relationship advice. They fall pregnant without thinking of their careers, and are happy to live off benefits.

This is little better than some of the old racist concerns about too many black babies. We should get this disgusting Atkins Family Freakshow out of our living rooms.

(1) All figures from National Statistics Online

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Topics Politics


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