Why do so many teenagers get pregnant?

5:56 pm - March 3rd 2010

by Unity    

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And so we come to the third and final part of my triptych of commentaries on teenage pregnancy, in which we’ll look afresh at the national picture and at:

a) why Labour’s efforts to reduce the number teenage pregnancies by half between 1999 and 2009 proved to be a failure, regardless of what Alex (at Labour List) would like to think and why, in fact, it was never going to be a success; and

b) why social conservatives have nothing at all to crow about here, and are no more likely to succeed in cutting conception rates amongst teenagers than Labour.

To quickly recap the story so far, what we’ve found it that within England there is a strong link between conception, birth and abortion rates for women under 20 and local patterns of socio-economic deprivation.

By looking at data from the EU, we’ve also found regional patterns in Europe that correspond to local patterns in England, with trends in teenage pregnancy rates in areas of low socio-economic deprivation most closely resembling those in Scandinavia, while areas of high socio-economic deprivation show trends that most closely match the Baltic states and other parts of Eastern Europe.

So it seems that the economy is driving teenage pregnancy rates..?

Yes…  and no.

The limits of economic influences on teenage pregnancy.

The graph (above) maps all the main trends relating to marriage and pregnancy amongst teenagers from 1968, when the 1967 Abortion Act came into effect, to 2008, the last year for which data is available.

Running scatter plots and correlations for several of the most important trends against three key economic indicators; the unemployment rate and economic activity rates for men and women under 20, provides a number of useful clarifications of limits of economic influences on trends.

Mapping these trends against unemployment rates shows moderate negative correlations to the live birth rate for all women and for birth rates within marriage (Pearson coefficient [PMCC] = -0.44) and to the marriage rate (PMCC = -0.42). Weaker positive correlations emerge when unemployment rates to the birth rate for unmarried teenagers (PMCC = 0.29) and abortion rate (PMCC=0.27).

Both the economic activity rates are very strongly correlated with the decline in the marriage rate (PMCC = +0.97 male, -0.97 female), birth rates inside marriage (PMCC = +0.95 male, -0.94 female),  outside marriage (PMCC = -0.86 male, +0.94 female) and with abortion rates (PMCC = -0.84 male, +0.94 female). There is, however, no significant correlation between economic activity and conception rates (PMCC = +0.16 male, +0.02 female) and only a modest negative correlation between unemployment rates and conception rates (PMCC =  -0.31).

This tells us two important things:

1. A tax bribe of around £1,000 a year is NOT going to have any significant impact on marriage rates amongst teenagers. In fact, nothing short of driving 20-25% of women under 20 out of the economy and into a straight choice between marriage and abject poverty is likely to reverse the decline in the marriage rate for teenagers.

2. The popular myth of teenagers deliberately getting pregnant in order to gain access to welfare benefits and social housing is, in the absence of a correlation between economic activity and conception rates, nothing more than a myth.

The strong correlations from economic activity rates to both birth rates and the abortion rate do, however, show that economic considerations are a major factor in the thinking of teenagers after they fall pregnant, particularly when deciding to whether to terminate the pregnancy or not.

What has been driving the change in conception rates?

The conception rate for women under 20 is shown by the two red lines on the graph – the solid line shows the year-on-year trend and the dashed line shows the underlying linear trend.

Although its possible to show a significant fall in conception rates of anything up to 10 conceptions per 1,000 women, if you choose your start and end years carefully the fall in conception rates on underlying trend is nothing like as significant – 2.8 conceptions per 1,000 women over forty years.

This has all the appearances of being a structural trend, which explains the failure of Labour’s teenage pregnancy strategy, which was neither radical enough nor draconian enough to deliver anything like at 50% reduction in conception rates.

What this also clearly shows is that a mere 20% of the overall fall in the birth rate for teenagers since 1968 stems from a fall in conception rates – the rest (80%) stems from the legalisation of abortion.

The role of the media in shaping conception rates since 1968

The four timelines shown under the main graph each map periods of heightened media coverage of issues relevant to trends in teenage conceptions/pregnancy across four interrelated issues:

1.Abortion Bills in Parliament (red)

2. High profile Anti-abortion campaigns (orange)

3. Contraception health scares (blue)

4. Health scares relating to STDs

From the time-lines we can clearly see that conception rates for teenagers fall during and after periods of intense media coverage of ‘new’ STDs.

Sharp falls in teenage conception rates followed immediately after extensive media coverage was given to genital herpes (1980-82) and Chlamydia (1998-2001), while HIV/AIDs (1987-91), the biggest scare story of them all, produced a somewhat delayed response despite being supported by a major, state-funded, public health campaign. This reflects the fact that the early media coverage of HIV focussed almost entirely on high-risk groups (gay men, intravenous drug users, etc.) and failed to put over the wider risk of HIV infection and a clear safe sex message.

Although it took a while for heterosexuals to cotton on to the risk of HIV infection, when they did catch up it led to an across the board fall in conception, birth and abortion rates across all age groups, not just teenagers, that lasted until the next thrombosis scare in 1995.

Conversely, we can also see that conception rates for teenagers rise in the wake of major health scares linked to the use of oral contraceptive and IUDs.

Since 1968, most of these health scares have stemmed from clinical evidence linking oral contraceptives to an increased risk of thrombosis (blood clots), particularly in women over 40. The first such scare occurred in 1965 at a time when oral contraceptives were available only to married women on prescription – ‘the pill’ did not became widely available to all women over the age of 18 until 1968.  The sole exception to this ‘rule’ occurred in 1985/6 after evidence emerged of major health risks linked to the use of an IUD called the Dalkon Shield, producing a sustained rise in conception rates that was not stemmed until the spread of HIV/AIDs gave women something every scarier to worry about.

Perhaps the clearest,and most ironic, example of the influence that media can wield when it stirs up a health scare is the most recent.

In 2005, a number of cases of thrombosis, including at least one death, were linked to the use of an oral contraceptive marketed under the brand name Dianette, resulting in a sharp increase in conceptions over the following two years. Although Dianette was developed as an oral contraceptive – and was widely identified as such by the media – it is not used as a contraceptive in the UK due its known side-effects.

What it is used for is the treatment of severe cases of acne and moderately severe hirsuitism, conditions that, on the face of it, are likely to serve as a far more effective form of contraception than any pill.

This was also widely reported by the press, at the time, but given much less prominence in their coverage, but the Dianette scare still generated a 6% rise in the teenage conception rate in the space of two years.

Major changes in conception rates, over the last 40 years, are not linked to changes in the economythey are driven by public perceptions of the health risks associated with STDs and with the use of contraceptives. Amongst teenagers, the evidence clearly suggests that these perceptions are influenced, to a large extent by media coverage of those risks.

The media, abortion rates and births outside marriage

Between 1972 and 1977, there were sharp falls in the marriage rate, conception rate and in the birth rate for married teenagers – including teenagers giving birth within 8 months of getting married, i.e. after a ‘shotgun wedding’. That same period also shows a stable abortion rate and a steady decline in the number of births to unmarried teenagers.

In just five years, the teenage conception rate fell by almost 30% and all on the back of a rise in the use of oral contraceptives by teenagers.

Over the next five years that trend was shattered, first by the thrombosis scare linked to the use of oral contraceptives (1975/6) and subsequently by the introduction of a Private Members’ bill that sought to impose a 20 week upper limit and swingeing restrictions on the grounds on which an abortion could be obtained and the abortion services that family planning charities could offer.

The Corrie Bill, as it came to be known, marked the beginning of the modern era of anti-abortion activism in the UK and an escalation in the use of scare/horror tactics by anti-abortion campaigners; so much so that an article about the Bill published in Australian newspaper ‘The Age’ in 1980 noted that:

“For two years, anti-abortionists have fed gruesome abortion stories to British newspapers. One typical headline read: “Baby fights for life on hospital draining board”.

The Corrie Bill was unusual both for the length of time it dragged on in the house – it took three years to send it to its final defeat – and in the novelty and vehemence of the campaign tactics adopted by anti-abortion campaigners.

With the conception rate rising sharply as a result of the thrombosis scare, the anti-abortion campaign surrounding the Corrie Bill and the extensive media coverage given to its scare tactics helped to ensure that the abortion rate fell behind the conception rate, reversing a ten-year decline in the birth rate amongst unmarried teenagers in only three years.

On each occasion that a serious attempt to amend the 1967 Abortion Act has been mounted since the demise of the Corrie Bill (1987, 1990 and 2007-8) the same pattern has emerged, one in which the annual changes in conception and abortion rates falls out of step, leading to a increase in the number of children born to unmarried teenagers relative to the trend in previous years. The only bill to fail to generate this effect was Nadine Dorries’ first stab at amending the Abortion Act, in 2006, which attracted no appreciable publicity or media coverage.

This same pattern is also found when issues arise which lead to an upswing in media coverage of anti-abortion campaign activities outside of those period when amendments to the Abortion Act have been, or were due to be, tabled in the House.

In 1996, for example, media coverage of anti-abortion campaign activities was boosted by a high profile case in which doctors carried out a selective abortion on a woman who was carrying twins, following IVF treatment, but wished to give birth to only one child. That case generated considerable media attention when the woman was offered £10,000 to carry both twins to term and as a result of legal challenge mounted by anti-abortion campaigners which obtained an injunction preventing the abortion, only then for it to be revealed that the procedure had taken place before the case went to court.

It also provided a media platform for the emergence of the Prolife Alliance as a political party. It put up 50 candidates in the 1997 general election and mounted an unsuccessful law suit against the BBC after it refused to show its proposed party election broadcast for reasons that become very obvious on reading a description of its content given in the final ruling on this case:

“The major part of the proposed programme was devoted to explaining the processes involved in different forms of abortion, with prolonged and graphic images of the product of suction abortion: aborted foetuses in a mangled and mutilated state, tiny limbs, a separated head, and the like.”

Regina v. British Broadcasting Corporation (Appellants) ex parte Prolife Alliance

Statistically, the effect of anti-abortion campaigners capturing a significant slice of the media’s attention has, since the demise of the Corrie Bill, been relatively small and short-lived – a net variation in the relevant trends of between 2.5% and 5% lasting for a period of around 12-18 months at most.

The human cost is, however, a rise in the number of children born to unmarried teenagers of around 500-1,000 in a single year over and above the number you’d expect based on the preceding trend.s

Overall, these campaigns, and the attention they’ve received from the media, have served to contribute to the overall rise in the birth rate amongst unmarried teenagers. Arguably, the protracted campaign mounted in support of the Corrie Bill, at the end of the 1970s, marks the point at which the process of normalising lone parenthood amongst teenagers began in earnest.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Reader comments

How about because they are full of hormones and shag like rabbits?

I did


Thanks for this. I think social liberals everywhere might find this useful (social conservatives everywhere may be looking for holes as I type – ‘what do you mean our scare tactics backfire?’).

Have you got any way to run the figures against educational attainment, which is the other factor often mentioned in this field of debate? Be interesting to see what that came up with…

Re: 1

Did you get pregnant?

4. Chris Baldwin

If they’re sixteen or over, it’s none of our business.

5. the a&e charge nurse

[4] “If they’re sixteen or over, it’s none of our business”.

Not strictly true, according to certain disreputable redtops?

Partisan scum like Alex Smith do all progressives a disservice by flatly denying that anything has gone wrong under the Labour government.

5. That’s only a problem if the circumstances mean they all grow up to be unproductive criminals, in which case giving them less money is hardly the answer to improving “our business” as a nation.

Seems a bit one-sided this, I mean why not ask the question “why do so many teenagers/men make other teenagers pregnant?”


I guess it’s easier to count mothers than fathers (after all, a chap can become a dad without knowing it, a lady cannot not know she is (or could become, if she chooses) a mother)…

@8, thats alsotwo one sided for my sensitive soul. How about…

“why do so many teenagers make other teenagers pregnant and why do so many teenagers get pregnant by other teenagers?”

OK. Try this. Most teenage pregnancies occur amongst the terminally dumb. The fathers clear off and the young mothers know they can get housing and benefits for a long time.

A triumph for the Welfare State. Look at the stats and distribution. Long live the comprehensive education

11. Jeremy Poynton

Bollocks. I know who who did. and in fact they are fine mothers – but it was simply the ONLY way they could get themselves housed.

Horse pooh. You people need to get out more, and you could start doing that by pulling your heads out of your bums, instead of pontificating and pretending you own the moral high ground. Your self-righteousness stinks.

Jeremy seems upset

13. Flowerpower

My recollection of this phase in my own life is now rather hazy, but I seem to remember that though we were made clearly aware of various risks by parents and teachers, we went in for reckless and risky behaviour anyway. I also dimly recall that hormones and booze tended to have rather more of an influence than economic factors, media reporting or political campaigns. Indeed, in those days teenagers didn’t really read the papers or watch news on TV.

Ok, seriously everyone the is about a lot more than just teens becoming pregnant. Let’s look at our society and the presures taht we are putting on these kids with all the different forms of sex media out there right now. So instead of blaming the teens let’s blame our society for the way that we are raising out children to think and act.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Prym face

    RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  2. Prym face

    Myths and correlations explained..why do teens get pregnant?. http://bit.ly/dgQQEZ

  3. Denny

    Interesting article about teen pregnancy. Warning, contains facts. http://bit.ly/bO8dmV

  4. Sam Mesquita

    RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  5. Helen L

    Fascinating analysis of social/economic factors RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  6. George Palima

    Liberal Conspiracy » Why do so many teenagers get pregnant?: Running scatter plots and correlations for several of… http://bit.ly/baaWi4

  7. natalieben

    RT @buenosam: RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  8. Dr Petra Boynton

    RT @buenosam: RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  9. Karen Hanna Kruzycka

    RT @buenosam: RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  10. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  11. Jose Aguiar

    RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  12. bishtraining

    RT @buenosam: RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/9OBrzl

  13. Hannah Mudge

    RT @libcon: Why do so many teenagers get pregnant? http://bit.ly/aIkDB8

  14. Liberal Conspiracy » Why does algebra reduce teenage conceptions?

    […] by Unity     March 4, 2010 at 2:00 pm I don’t usually do requests, but at the prompting of Watchman in comments, this is part four of my trilogy of posts on teenage pregnancy, and this time […]

  15. Delicious LiveJournal Links for 3-4-2010 | Power Station

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