Birth in a nation that won't listen

Between Voice and Silence - Dubious Conceptions
November 15, 1996

The United States has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the industrialised world, with a birthrate of some 53 per 1,000 teenagers compared to just nine per 1,000 in Scandinavia. The American teenage conception rate is twice that of England and Wales, and nine times that of the Netherlands. Approximately one million young US women become pregnant each year, more than half of this number carrying their babies to term. These staggering figures present a problem on a scale far in excess of the situation in Britain, but similar debates continue to take place in both countries. Hence the two interesting and very different analyses of the American situation in Dubious Conceptions and Between Voice and Silence have much to offer British readers.

Both books explore behind the teenage pregnancy headlines and seek to provide new answers to the vital questions of why so many teenagers become pregnant and what social policies are appropriate to meet this trend. Each confronts the myths and moral panics surrounding teenage pregnancy, seeks to present the reality of young people's experience which, the authors argue, is so often ignored. Especially welcome is the strong focus on race and cultural issues, which is generally lacking in British studies of teenage pregnancy.

Kristin Luker, a sociologist, takes a historic perspective starting with the early colonial era in America and moving through to the present day in a fascinating account of how public attitudes to early motherhood have changed, and how this has been reflected in social policies.

In historical terms the perception of teenage pregnancy as a problem is a very modern construct, given that in 18th-century England and America, the the minimum legal age for marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for men, and in the colonial period the age of consent to sex was seven for girls. In fact the very notion of a teenager was only created in 1904 and with that the beginning of the sense of young people as being developmentally immature and not ready for sexual experience or parenthood.

There are many parallels between the American and British history of the political debate on teenage pregnancy. The social trends Luker traces closely mirror those which have taken place in Britain, giving the book considerable relevance for readers in this country, particularly bearing in mind that many of the more punitive policies sometimes advocated here have actually been implemented in parts of the US.

Luker's central argument is that such policies are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the root causes of teenage pregnancy. She carefully analyses these causes, exploding as she does so many of the myths about teenage sexuality and fertility, and unpicking the arguments for the more punitive responses. Teenage pregnancy is examined in the context of the sweeping social and economic changes that have occurred in this century, which have affected sexual attitudes and behaviour.

Her very clear view is that the issue is not one of feckless young people, careless of moral standards and unable to control their sexual urges. Rather she presents teenage pregnancy as the outcome of social factors, closely associated with poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation in a society increasingly divided between rich and poor, working and unemployed.

"Motherhood among young women . . . is increasingly concentrated in the disadvantaged groups of our society, both white and minority," she argues, supporting this with the evidence that well over 80 per cent of teenage mothers were living in poverty or near-poverty long before they became pregnant. The trend among affluent women to postpone childbearing has passed these young women by. In a sense the teenagers who become mothers are the ones who have least to lose through early parenthood.

As research has demonstrated in this country as well, among more affluent young women with good educational and career prospects three-quarters will choose abortion in response to an unwanted pregnancy, compared to less than half among the less well off. This is not a variant of the Charles Murray underclass interpretation, however, rather it offers an alternative reading, challenging the assumption that teenage parenthood necessarily perpetuates cycles of deprivation.

Education has a central place in Luker's discussion and she introduces the concept of "discouragement": the process whereby some young people failing in school, and facing the increasing pressures of life at the bottom, with very little positive support, lose hope and confidence in their future. This is not an individual failing, she stresses. "Society has failed teenage parents all along the line - they are people for whom their own families, the schools, the health care system and the labour market have been painful and unrewarding places," she concludes.

This theme of discouragement is equally strong in Between Voice and Silence, a study of 26 adolescent schoolgirls, identified as at risk of dropout and early parenthood. Carried out by a team of psychologists in education, the starting point for the study is the researchers' view that the voices of young people themselves, particularly girls, are almost absent from most studies of teenage pregnancy.

Through detailed individual interviews with each girl over a period of three years, this "voice-centred enquiry" maps the changes in their feelings about themselves, their relationships with family, boyfriends, school friends, teachers and their hopes and expectations for the future.

When interviewed at age 13 the girls displayed as much of the "vitality and psychological brilliance" the researchers had encountered in work with more privileged young women. Over the three years this gave way to increasing feelings of "isolation and psychological distress", and the sense that their voices were not listened to.

The researchers note that in the area of sexuality and relationships this lack of contact is important. "The kind of questions girls may have are not likely to be answered in health and sex education classes, which for the most part leave out the possibility of girls' desire and an understanding of how cultural values and beliefs around sexuality influence the decisions girls do - and do not - make." If they also lack trusted adults who will listen to their concerns, young women are left vulnerable. The researchers urge educators to find ways for "students to be able to bring themselves - their thoughts, feelings, and experience - more fully into classrooms and classwork".

Of course, sex education both in the United States and Britain continues to be a battleground, with opponents claiming that it destroys the innocence of youth and even promotes sexual experimentation. The authors of both books make a passionate defence of the benefits of the kind of sex education which goes beyond purely biological facts and creates opportunities for young people to discuss their own sexual values, and experiences. Luker calls also for continued provision of state-funded contraceptive services for young people, which together with abortion services are under threat in America, as new right and allied groups have gathered political influence.

Over and beyond such essential prevention initiatives, perhaps the strongest message of both books is that policy should be guided by the reality of young people's experiences and by listening to their voices, not the prejudices, false assumptions and rhetoric that surrounds much discussion of teenage pregnancy.

Karin Pappenheim is director, National Council for One Parent Families.

Between Voice and Silence: Women and Girls, Race and Relationship

Author - Jill McLean Taylor, Carol Gilligan and Amy M. Sullivan
ISBN - 0 674 06879 3
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £13.95
Pages - 253

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