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Ann Bradley

Teenage tragedy

It's open season on teenage mothers again. In July Welsh secretary John Redwood announced his shock at discovering that on some Cardiff housing estates young women have babies 'with no apparent intention of even trying marriage or a stable relationship with the father of the child'. Days later, health minister Tom Sackville chose the anniversary of the publication of the Health of the Nation report to complain that the provision of council housing and welfare benefits had encouraged teenage mothers.

Banging on about teenage mothers must be preferable to tackling the real problems of the health of the nation (like the under-resourcing of hospitals and primary healthcare). It also provides an opening to stick the boot into morally lax liberals, and an excuse to cut the already pitiful levels of welfare provision.

In the simple minds of ministers, the growing problem of teenage single-motherhood is caused by the benefit system (which pays on average £70 to a single parent of one child) and by 'feminists' who say it's OK for women to bring up kids on their own. Muzzle the feminists, cut the benefits, recreate a moral climate where young women are chastised for having sex and the problem's solved.
Unfortunately the liberal response to this reactionary onslaught is pretty feeble. It usually centres on a denial that young girls get pregnant in order to get council flats, or an insistence that teenage pregnancies are unwanted and that better access to contraception and sex education is the solution.

It may well be the case that many young people are ignorant about how they can and can't get pregnant, and it's certainly true that they need better access to the contraceptive method of their choice. But the teenage pregnancies which the government is concerned about involve teenagers whose pregnancies are intended and wanted - by the girl, if not her partner.

Most young people have sex for fun. Teenagers in shire villages experiment with it just like teenagers on run-down, inner-city estates. But while it remains recreational for middle class teenagers, it tends to become procreational for working class ones. A recent article in the British Medical Journal points out that a pregnancy to a middle class girl usually ends in an abortion, while a pregnancy to her working class contemporary typically ends in a birth. The reasons why are pretty obvious.

There are clear incentives for Rebecca and Beatrice to remain unpregnant - the chance to travel, a place at university, career prospects. Middle class teenagers have ambitions and a chance to fulfil them. By contrast, what does life offer a 17-year old woman on the housing estates of inner London, Cardiff or Liverpool?

What reason does a girl from those grim concrete cities have to avoid getting pregnant? There is no decent job for her to go to, no prospect of financial or social independence. At least a baby gives her some status, a transition into an adult world, access to a (miserly) independent income and the chance to escape from her parents home to one of her own.

If single-motherhood appears attractive to young working class women it is because they have no prospect of doing anything more significant with their lives. Ask any 13-year old girl what she wants to be when she's 17 and you won't find one who aspires to being a teenage mother. She wants a job, a wage, a nice boyfriend, friends and a hectic social life. Motherhood only becomes attractive when it's compared to living out your unemployed days in your mum's flat with no income to call your own.

There's a singular perversity in the way that the Tories blame everyone from liberal teachers and social workers to the working class for the rising numbers of young single mothers. In reality, the government itself is responsible.

After all, whose fault is it if young women have nothing better to aspire to than the domestic drudgery that a young baby brings? Who's to blame if there are no jobs from which working class women can earn a decent living?

It's certainly not the fault of the young women. Their ambitions and aspirations are crushed by their experiences at the receiving end of government social policy. If the government is looking for a reason for the rise in teenage pregnancy it needs look no further than the consequences of its own policies which have left many with no hope for the future.

Working class women don't need a moral lead, they need a chance to live.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993

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