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January 15, 2004

The Tools and Mission We Give Children

Noah Millman notes further evidence of a trend — actually, the coalescence of two trends — that I've been following for a while. Here's the first, visible in the contrast between the United States and the United Kingdom:

The surge among youngsters to espouse President Bush's tough moral stance on teenage sex - he has ploughed $117 million (Ł64 million) into what is known as "abstinence education" in schools - has been credited with slashing America's hitherto high rate of teenage pregnancies. ...

In the past decade, the number of teenage pregnancies in America has decreased by 30 per cent, with the past year's statistics indicating a historic low of just 43 births per 1,000 teenage girls.

The strategy has been acknowledged as a success, and we, on the other side of the Atlantic, look on in envy. In Britain, the Government has adopted a vastly different approach - that of dishing out condoms and morning-after pills, making sex education compulsory in secondary schools, and inundating our teenagers with explicit information on sex. Sex education in our schools is aimed at increasing sexual knowledge and encouraging contraception to combat teenage pregnancy, rather than condemning underage sex: preventing pregnancy rather than preventing sex is the Government's aim.

While it is a strategy that is lauded in liberal circles, it is also a strategy that has not worked. We have failed utterly to reduce the numbers of gymslip mothers. For the past 12 years Britain has been the pregnancy capital of Europe. According to Unicef's latest figures, in 2002 some 41,966 British girls under 18 became pregnant. Of those, 5,954 were 15; 2,011 were 14, and 450 were under 14.

The second trend — more of a "reality" — very well may be related to the fact that the British Telegraph capitalizes "Government":

As president, Mr Clinton introduced legislation that ensured single teenage mothers received welfare and childcare only if they undertook job training - and then cut off those cash benefits after a maximum of two years. It meant that heavily subsidised public housing and hefty benefit cheques were no longer an incentive for young girls to become pregnant: a baby in your teens means a lifetime of drudgery, was the message.

In Britain, surveys indicate that for many teenagers becoming pregnant is an aspiration: the benefits and cheap local authority housing available is seen by some as a reason to become pregnant - especially for teenagers from impoverished or broken homes. A recent poll by the Family Education Trust indicated that 45 per cent of single pregnant teenagers had either wanted to conceive or "didn't mind" that they had. The introduction of Ł5,000 worth of free nursery care to enable pregnant teenagers to return to school is seen by many as a "perverse incentive" to attract young girls into parenthood.

The two-pronged attack seems about right to me: stop teaching kids that they should have "safe" sex (as opposed to no sex) and don't take away the consequences of pregnancy to the extent that they become benefits. When government bureaucrats take the approach that children should "be aware of and enjoy their sexuality" and "young women have the right to freedom from unplanned pregnancy and a fulfilling sex life," the results can be tragic (at least to those with healthy moral views themselves):

Katie, 17, from Swindon, may have been unaware of her local authority's approach, but her life reflects its ethos. At 16 she gave birth to Brandon: father unknown. "We did loads of sex education at school," she says. "I used the morning-after pill a few times, but, you know, you forget . . ." She shrugs. "I was hanging out with boys from when I was 13. My mum knew. She put me on the pill. She thought, 'Better safe than sorry.' To me it was like saying go out and sleep with boys. And I would forget to take that too." Though she has not been given local authority housing Katie receives income support, which entitles her to a host of other benefits.

From her pocket she pulls out a battered pamphlet. Published by the Brook Association, the Good Grope Guide is part of its schools sex manual which is directed at 13-year-olds. One of her friends has another, this time a Family Planning Association booklet aimed at 14-16-year-olds. "Abortion," it assures its readers, "is nothing to worry about."

"We are not like your generation," her friend says. "We get taught how to do it. When I was 14 we were shown a video in school that told us all about sexual positions. And it said that we should consider oral sex if we were a bit unsure about going all the way."

Posted by Justin Katz at January 15, 2004 11:27 AM
Marriage & Family