Historical Analysis of Situation with Teenage Pregnancy in Last Decades
In the 1990s teenage pregnancy had reached its peak and has been declining ever since, yet teenage parenthood as a concern for policy makers has continued to remain just as prominent since that point. It highlights a shift of concern from the 1950s and 1960s where unmarried mothers were a primary concern; since the 1990s, it is the age of the mother that is of concern. I will be focusing in on the assumptions made by New Labours Teenage Pregnancy Strategy in 1999 and how evidence has shown that some claims made do not hold up well; we can counter pose some of the strategies assumptions with research. This strategy has had many implications for teenage mothers and their parents including the teenage mother being a moral panic oppose to a pressing public issue, shaping it as a negative experience for all parties, creating a distorted view of the parents of teenage mothers, an over-focus and overstating of their socio-economic position and how teenage parenthood as a policy problem still persists today.
In 1992 the Health of the Nation report was the first report in the UK to state that teenage pregnancy rates were high. Following this years later, in 1999, the social exclusion unit published the teenage pregnancy report which highlighted that 90,000 teenagers had become pregnant, 56,000 gave birth and 7,700 were under 16. This is where we saw the social exclusion phenomenon come to life; the teenage pregnancy strategy was then published and made the large assumption that all teenage parents are the result of social exclusion or would become socially excluded. They stated that those who experience poverty, those who had teenage mothers, do poorly in education, experience sexual abuse amongst other factors are at risk of teenage parenthood. It also made claims concerning the future of a teenage mother, stating that they were at risk of factors like remaining single parents, experiencing poverty, issues with mental health and putting their children at risk of poor health. They wanted young people to engage more with education or the labour force, have better sex education and more to reduce social exclusion; their expected result was that by 2018 the under-18 conception rate would have reduced by half. According to MacVarish what this strategy did was place risk on the teenager who occupies the adult and the child.
Firstly, I will criticise this strategy on the basis that it created a moral panic instead of being a pressing public health issue as stated by Lawlor and Shaw. As MacVarish states, victimisation is often a policy outcome and in this case it may be due to the view of children as innocent; Hunt spoke about Victorian England and the masturbation panic of the time amongst young boys which is a good example to show that young people are often viewed as more risky than other groups. Arai focused on the media and showed how they played on the assumptions of the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy by using language that emphasises the panic around teenage pregnancy; ‘beating the odds’ was a common phrase used to describe a good teenage parent. Two researchers, Hawk and Wiggins in their own studies on teenage parents actually found that teenage parents presented no differences with older mothers, therefore, it raises the issue as to why there was such a focus on their age.
Secondly, the strategy ignores positive experiences of teenage parents. Lee et al found that mothers under seventeen do not view their motherhood as a problem but find the experience enjoyable and embrace being a young mother. Macvarish also states that teenage parenthood has made for a good transition into adulthood for some young people. Furthermore, a comparison between young mothers and middle-class mothers highlighted in the Observer in 2014 stated that young mothers had a more ‘carefree’ approach to parenting but the middle-class parents had a tendency to place pressure on their children. This reflects the view held by Vinson that good motherhood is un-attainable for most, not just teenage mothers and this shows how the strategy paints a negative picture of the lives of teenage mothers by solely focusing on negative factors to achieve its aims.
There has been support of the strategies claim that being a child of a teenage mother causes teenage parenthood; this focus on McMurrays transmission of deprivation was explored in MacVarish and Billings research. They found that mothers of teenage mothers had been young themselves when they fell pregnant. MacVarish highlights how in the eyes of policy makers, where they fail is where they begin to blame parents for; the absence of a father and having a lack of sexual literacy to inform their children. However, MacVarish and Billings redeem the image of parents by showing how supportive they are. Edward and Gillies also found this as well as exploring how parents viewed themselves. Parents saw themselves as the appropriate people for offering child-care support, emotional support and advice. Referring back to the criticism that the strategy ignored positive experiences, McDermott and Graham found that teenage pregnancy actually fixed relationships and prompted the mother to play a more active role. The implications of policy on parents of teenage mothers have been negative despite research shedding light on their more positive role.
Vinson raises attention to teenage parenthood as a policy problem in the US but her view on them can be applied to the teenage pregnancy strategy. She states that young mothers are shaped by statistical interpretations that reduces them to demographics like age. It also shapes them as preventative subjects which has a tendency to encourage bad self-image and teenagers hiding their pregnancies. This is problematic because it is likely that hiding a pregnancy would make a young woman’s mental health worse which the strategy states it wants to combat. Strategies like this according to Vinson highlights the failings of other young mothers making them a problem group instead of educating young people.
Vinson also states that the struggles these young mothers face are not solely because of their reproductive decisions. However, the implications of this strategy are that life circumstances are determined by the mothers child-bearing age. Although there has been a focus on factors like poverty in the strategy, poverty is a factor experienced by many mothers not just young ones; Ermisch states that it is not about age but about socio-economic positon. This would mean that young mothers are not the only problem group. Duncan says that policy focuses more on structural factors than the individual factors associated specifically with young mothers like shyness towards services, poor use of contraception and lack of sexual knowledge. However policy continues to do this as recently as 2018 when the Guidance on Teenage Pregnancy was published that spoke about certain life experiences that could lead to teenage pregnancy. These life experiences included receiving free school meals, school absence, sex before 16 and so forth. Despite a large decline policy makers are still concerned with teenage parenthood.
The decline that has happened since 1999 is seen to be due to the success of the teenage pregnancy strategy, however, there have been broader social changes that could have reduced rates of teenage pregnancy. There has been a shift in aspirations for young women where they are more career focused, less sex amongst young people, and free contraception like condoms. Overall, we can see that the teenage pregnancy strategy can be critically evaluated using research to counteract some of its claims. It has been shown that social exclusion causing the teenage mother and being the result of the teenage mother is overstated after looking at scholars assertions about a possible moral panic, positive experiences of teenage mothers and their parents and the negative implications that this strategy has based on claims with little evidence. Despite research, it still continues to be a prominent issue in sexual health policy in England and Wales.