Dona Milne, Deputy Director of Public Health, NHS Lothian
Teenage pregnancy statistics released this summer offer some reassurances that work to reduce teenage pregnancies may finally be paying off. Often, however, the release of new statistics about teenage pregnancy is followed by public debate around issues such as morality, fecklessness and the right kind of sex education for young people.
Much of the commentary however misses the point by talking only about sex and sex education. It is important that public policy focuses on addressing the underlying social factors that cause teenage pregnancy and that we are not distracted by myths and hearsay.
The term teenage pregnancy refers to all conceptions in young women under the age of 20 and for some young people teenage parenthood is very much a planned and positive experience.
For others, however, teenage pregnancy is not an informed decision. Unfortunately for many young people the decision to embark on parenthood is likely to continue a cycle of deprivation and lack of support from parents and family.
How can we ensure pregnancy is a positive decision and reduce the rate of unintended teenage pregnancies?
In Lothian and many parts of Scotland, we have built a firm foundation through the delivery of good sexual health work but we recognise that sexual health services and education, whilst important, are only a small part of the approach needed to see changes across the population. Our focus needs to be on earlier intervention, increasing aspirations, achievement, and approaches to addressing wider inequalities.
Young women from our least well-off communities are more likely to become pregnant than those from more affluent areas. Unintended teenage pregnancy is due to the effects of deprivation, a lack of connectedness with education, few prospects of meaningful employment and a lack of skills to negotiate sexual relationships based on mutual respect.
It is important that adults working with children and young people recognise the need to ensure they are supported to achieve all that they can in order to widen their horizons and the range of opportunities available to them in the future. Something that youth workers do every day with young people.
Teachers, youth workers and school nurses delivering education and services need to make these as relevant as possible to the lives of young people. Universal services such as education and youth work play a key role in addressing these issues in a way that does not stigmatise the individual. However, it is parents who have arguably the most important role of all to support and encourage their children as they grow up.
The Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee Enquiry into teenage pregnancy was published at the end of June. As with all parliamentary reports it considers targets which can help reduce teenage pregnancies in Scotland.
There are many targets we can set but my simple suggestion would be to ensure that no young woman leaves full-time education as a result of an unplanned pregnancy.
This would signify that our emphasis is firmly on providing young women with the tools to ensure they can be confident and successful contributors to Scottish society.