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Teenage motherhood and the construction of the new model parent. Dr Jan Macvarish, Research Associate, CHSS, University of Kent. Understanding teenage pregnancy policy . Embedded within wider political and cultural developments
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Dr Jan Macvarish, Research Associate, CHSS, University of Kent
Embedded within wider political and cultural developments
1992 Health of the Nation White Paper set a target (PM John Major, Health Minister Virginia Bottomley)
'To reduce the rate of conceptions among the under 16s by
at least 50% by the year 2000 (from 9.5 per 1,000 girls
aged 13-15 in 1989 to no more than 4.8)'.
Note: youngest age-group, conception not motherhood, health context
‘While the rate of teenage pregnancies has remained high here, throughout most of the rest of Western Europe it fell rapidly. As a country, we can’t afford to continue to ignore this shameful record.’
1999, PM Tony Blair, preface to the Social Exclusion Unit report.
‘Teenage parenthood is bad for parents and children. Becoming a parent too early involves a greater risk of being poor, unemployed and isolated. The children of teenage parents grow up with the odds stacked against them.’
Social Exclusion Unit Teenage Pregnancy Strategy Report, 1999
‘Health professionals and the general public should be wary of claims that the rate of teenage pregnancy in Britain is ‘high’ and increasing in an alarming way. International comparisons suggest that the rate is moderate and that the past six decades have seen a decline rather than a rise….We believe that the selective reporting of international and time comparisons by policy makers results in a ‘manufactured risk’ and has more to do with moral panic than public health’.
Lawlor, D.A and Shaw, M. (2004). Teenage pregnancy rates: high compared with where and when? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 97, March 2004.
In 2006, Minister for Children, Families and Young People, Beverly Hughes, took the unusual step of publicly responding to a piece of research claiming that some teenage pregnancies were planned and that teenage parenthood could have positive outcomes (Cater and Coleman 2006). A lengthy ministerial rebuttal was circulated and Hughes gave statements to the media:
‘This is an unfortunate study which, on the basis of a very small and carefully selected sample, suggests that teenage pregnancy can be a positive option for some young people. We reject that view completely. There is overwhelming evidence that, overall, teenage parenthood leads to poorer outcomes both for teenage mothers and their children.’
Beverly Hughes, BBC News online, 17 July 2006
‘…increasingly, morality has come to function through proxies, not in its own voice, but in and through other discursive forms, the two most important and closely related being the discourses of ‘harm’ and ‘risk’…In an epoch in which overt moralization runs the risk of being greeted with some suspicion, risks are frequently posed in such a way as to downplay a moral dimension.’
Alan Hunt, Risk and Moralization in Everyday Life. In Erickson, R.V. and Doyle, A. Risk and Morality. University of Toronto Press Incorporated, Toronto, Canada 2003:182
‘The sin that modern teen mothers commit is not the sin of desire, but the sin of not planning and rationally choosing their future.’
SmithBattle 2000: 30, cited in Duncan, S. (2007) What’s the problem with teenage parents? And what’s the problem with policy? Critical Social Policy, Vol.27 (3):307-334.
Duncan’s claim that policy is demanding economic rationality from those who are spontaneously exercising moral rationality does not take on board that policy does not expect teenage parents to be able to make rational decisions or be truly self-sufficient.
Duncan calls for a ‘refocus on the value of parenthood in itself, both socially and for individuals’ (Duncan 2007: 329) to challenge the instrumentalist rationality of policy-makers, it is perhaps necessary to start by reclaiming a more positive definition of what ‘parenthood’ and ‘childhood’ mean in contrast to the overly deterministic and pessimistic construction of ‘parenting’ and ‘the child at risk’ in current British policy.
‘Social exclusion’: develops the construction of certain social groups as ‘vulnerable’ and encumbered with disempowering expectations, attitudes and psycho-cultural practices.
Assumption that teenagers will be further alienated by moralising. The teenager, particularly female, is increasingly constructed as the passive victim of external influences rather than as an individual making choices about her sexual or reproductive behaviour.
Emphasis on being ‘at risk’: Sexual health risks (e.g Chlamydia) and emotional risks of early sex (peer pressure and sexualised culture).
Presumption that they are isolated and problematisation of real family support.
Greater intolerance is based on the vulnerability of the child to parental determination, and that young parenthood is evidence of dysfunction (caused by poor parenting by their own parents).
Children of teenage parents are increasingly psychologically ‘fixed’ in their disadvantage.
The vulnerable child is the only remaining ‘pivot’ point for moral certainty.
‘Being a parent is - and should be - an intensely personal experience and parents can be effective in very different ways. However, we also have a growing understanding, evidenced from research, about the characteristics of effective parenting.’
Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, introduction to Every Parent Matters report, 15 March 2007
Parentline Plus website, 4 January 2009
‘Government needs to consider carefully its role in enabling all parents to play a full and positive part in their children’s learning and development. We want to create conditions where more parents can engage as partners in their children’s learning and development, from birth, through the school years and as young people make the transition to adulthood. We are pushing at an open door here – 75 per cent of parents say they want more help.’
Alan Johnson, cover letter to the launch of Every Parent Matters report, 15 March 2007.
Family Nurse Partnership Programme
‘The partnership is a model of intensive nurse-led home visiting for vulnerable first time young parents which involves family nurses visiting young, disadvantaged young parents from early pregnancy until the child is two years old. Nurses build close, supportive relationships with families and guide inexperienced teenagers to adopt healthier lifestyles, improve their parenting skills, and become self-sufficient.’
17 March 2008, DoH Press Release
‘Ministers urge frontline services to prioritise child health’
‘We all know that it is in the first few years of a child's life that the greatest strain is placed on the family's household income. One of things we want to do is to say the State can be there in practical human-centred ways to help people cope with difficult times. One of the things we are particularly keen to do is to expand the system of health visitors. Health visitors are almost one of the friendliest faces of the state. What they do is they ensure that before and after childbirth there is a trained professional there in order to help mother in what can be a time of great strain and tension, cope with the arrival of a new child.’
Shadow children, schools and families secretary, Michael Gove on Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme, 1 October 2008
Behaviour is evaluated and analysed rather than decision-making judged. Openness to external expertise and support in carrying out ‘the most difficult job in the world’.
Awareness of changing scientific truths means that there can be no certain rules. Therefore what is needed is a repository of expertise and an open relationship to facilitate its transmission and practice.