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Young woman with pregnancy test in hands

Dr Kimberly Jamie, from our Department of Sociology, explores Redcar and Cleveland Council's recent performance report by its Director of Children and Families Services and considers whether we should be worried about teenage pregnancy in the North East.

According to a recent performance report by its Director of Children and Families Services, Redcar and Cleveland Council is “worried about” teenage pregnancies in the area.

While the North East region has always tended to have higher teenage conception and birth rates than the rest of the UK, Office for National Statistics data shows that between March 2020 and February 2021, just 3.13 per cent of births in the area were to women under the age of 19. Given how low this figure actually is, should the Council actually be concerned? The answer, which I recently talked through with local newspapers, is yes and no.

Yes, teenage pregnancy is a concern

On the one hand, teenage pregnancies should be a concern for local authorities. In a statement on their recent performance report, a spokesman for the Council, talked about a need to ‘educate and inform’ teenagers (read: teenage girls) about ‘avoiding pregnancy’. This approach, however, individualises the issue.

Instead, teenage pregnancy needs to be seen as a systemic and structural issue. Decades of research tells us that teenage pregnancies are much more likely to occur in socio-economically deprived neighbourhoods which are at the sharp end of widening inequalities of wealth, health, education, housing, and opportunities. So high rates of teenage pregnancy are generally a good indicator of multiple deprivations, socio-economic challenges, and social marginalisation. All things that local authorities should be concerned about.

This should be a catalyst for genuine systemic change whereby local authorities ask themselves what are the material circumstances that lead very young women in their area to understand having a baby at this point in life as a positive, or perhaps their only, choice? Addressing this question might result in some immediate positives like demands for more support from central government or pumping money into neighbourhoods which really need it. But, in the longer-term, concern about high teenage pregnancy rates in the North East should help form the bedrock of a fight for fundamental system change such as improved housing legislation, fairer welfare support, better employment provision, and reinstatement of the Sure Start scheme.

No, teenage pregnancy is not a concern

But we need to be cautious about locating teenage pregnancy as a concern at all. Women from deprived neighbourhoods who have children young aren’t at significantly increased risk of poor long-term outcomes than women from the same area who have children later in life. Once again, it’s inequality and deprivation which have the greatest impact on life outcomes, rather than the age at which a person has children; teenage pregnancy shouldn’t be the primary concern!

But more generally, talking about teenage pregnancy as a concern at all locates it as some kind of failure or irresponsibility. This understanding not only obscures the systemic issues which feed into teenage pregnancy, but is also loaded with historical prejudices about women’s, and particularly working-class women’s, sexuality and sexual practices.

Would teenage pregnancies be considered as much of an issue if they happened in greater numbers amongst middle class young women? I don’t think so. My guess is that we’d see much more State support, a much stronger rhetoric around ‘choice’ where having a baby early before pursuing education or a career is a perfectly legitimate lifestyle choice, and I suspect Sure Start would still be going strong too. 

But working-class women’s practices, young age child-bearing being just one, have always been devalued as a problem to ‘solve’. This devaluation is particularly pronounced in circumstances where some State support (e.g. access to housing, benefit provision) is also required as we most often find in the case of teenage pregnancy. Then, not only are working-class girls demonised for being teenage mothers, but also stigmatised as a ‘drain’ on collective resources. Worse still, the myth still persists that teenage girls vindictively choose adolescent parenting in order to ‘drain’ the State for all they can get – ‘they only do it to get a free Council house’ is something we’ve all heard.

So, the Council needs to be careful in its location of teenage pregnancy as a thing to be “worried about” – what does their concern say about young working-class women? What ideas and assumptions is it based on? Is the concern really teenagers getting pregnant per se, or is it because it’s the wrong kind of teenagers?

A note to remember

I was recently asked to comment on Redcar and Cleveland Council’s identification of teenage pregnancy as an area of concern which I have done here and here. In my comments, and in my research and teaching at Durham I try to draw attention to the systemic issues of inequality and social exclusion which create the material conditions in which the majority of teenage pregnancies occur. But, we need to be cautious not to locate teenage pregnancy as simply an apathetic outcome of systemic injustice. Instead, we need to recognise that some young women make active and informed choices to have babies at a young age for all kinds of reasons. Our task should be to listen to them and their stories.

Disclaimer: My research and commentary focus on women who have made a conscious choice to become pregnant and/or keep a child. My comments do not apply to trafficked teenagers, or young women who conceive/give birth as a result of abuse, rape or coercion.

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