Teenage pregnancies in the UK and their perception in the British print media

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

51 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


1. Facts and Statistics
1.1 Teenage Pregnancy in the United Kingdom
1.1.2 Social Benefits as an Enticement for Childbearing – a Myth?

2. Factors Related to Teenage Pregnancy
2.1 Various Factors
2.2 Social Background and Deprivation
2.2.1 Class

3. Print Media
3.1 Negative Examples: the Benefit Mother
3.2 Positive Examples: the Omnipotent Mother

4. The creation of Meaning – Culture, Representation and Discourse
4.1 Stereotypes and Their Function
4.2 Creation and Transfer of Ideology
4.3. Power Relations
4.4 Political Background and Objectives

5. Impacts on Teenage Mothers - Self-perception

6. Conclusion




One of the most controversial issues in the United Kingdom is the topic of teenage pregnancy. The United Kingdom's number of teenage mothers is the highest one in comparison to all other European states. This is an astonishing fact, the more so as European countries such as Spain, Italy or Poland with a traditionally more conservative background formerly based on Catholicism with its strict moral principles against extra-marital sex or use of contraceptives have lower rates of teenage parents. The issue of teenage pregnancies in the United Kingdom is, in general, regarded as one of the main and most urgent social problems in a modern society. Several political parties and governmental institutions have intended to tackle the problem by various campaigns, especially during the years of Labour Government. Likewise, the media provide their readers and viewers frequently with new figures, research results, comments or stories regarding this topic.

In this paper I want to examine the portrayal of teenage pregnancy and teenage mothers in the British print media with a focus on daily newspapers. For this purpose, the main part will be an analysis of a number of articles concerning this topic from the most popular newspapers. The subject matter deals with the question if there exists a relation between the coverage of the topic and the portrayal of the mothers and the transfer of ideology by the media. How does this particular representation contribute to the implementation of cultural values and the maintenance of existing power relations? Another interesting question to pose is whether the reporting on this topic has changed over the course of time, if it has increased during the last years and if there are certain political rationales behind a changing coverage.

There are numerous studies, scientific essays and books about the negative effects of teenage pregnancy on the mothers, their children and on society.[1] With this work, I do not want to deny that teenage pregnancy is in fact a social problem, but I would like focus on a different perspective, the question of the media's influence on its perception, but also on the perspective of the party concerned – the teenage mothers themselves and how they might think about their image in the media. Their portrayal and the general reports on the topic in the print media affect public views but also political decisions with great impacts on the group in question.

In order to give an exact account of the situation, the first and second chapter describe the status quo as it is essential to obtain reliable facts about figures and the development before analyzing its representation. The data derives from British governmental offices and institutions, for example, the Office for National Statistics, as well as from international institutions, such as Unicef. The second chapter points out possible reasons and factors associated with teenage pregnancy. According to several studies which I will quote in the chapter, one of the most important factors is the social background of the teenagers, for this reason, the description concentrates on deprivation and class in the United Kingdom. Chapter 3 contains examples of newspaper articles, their description and an interpretation. For reasons of space, this work can not provide a representative study, however, by choosing random samples from different newspapers, I intend to show a general tendency in creating teenage mothers' images. Besides, the examined newspapers come from a broad spectrum comprising, for example, so-called quality papers like The Times as well as tabloid newspapers like The Sun or popular papers, for instance The Daily Mail. The fourth chapter intends to analyze their broader meaning, basically proceeding from the concept of stereotypes, their function and how they contribute to the creation and transfer of ideology and to the current discourse. This chapter has its foundation in various well-known theories from cultural sciences. The fifth chapter relates to the opinion of teenage mothers themselves and their self-perception. Finally, a conclusion about possible consequences summarizes my results and interpretations.

1. Facts and Statistics

First of all, a definition of the term 'teenage pregnancy' is essential as official statistics do vary in age ranges. The REPROSTAT 2 group[2] defined teenage pregnancy as a pregnancy which occurs in the period of age between 13 to 19 years (630). Secondly, in order to evaluate correctly the status quo and the development it is important to look carefully at facts and figures published by British authorities and international institutions. It has to be mentioned that official bodies in the United Kingdom usually provide data about pregnancy in general and teenage pregnancy in particular in the form of conception rates.[3] A conception does not necessarily lead to the same number of live births because miscarriages diminish the figure.

Moreover, the mothers' age at conception is naturally younger than her age at the date of birth. In contrast, international statistics are in general based on birth rates. Besides, United Kingdom authorities always publish statistics separately for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. On the one hand, this method shows regional differences in the rate, on the other hand, it is rather difficult to obtain an overall picture. For these reasons, several different sources of data were considered and are included in the appendix.

1.1 Teenage Pregnancy in the United Kingdom

"England’s teenage pregnancy rate is one of the highest in Western Europe, with over 40,000 under-18 conceptions in 2007." (TPIA 3) In fact, according to comparisons from Unicef, the rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK is the highest in Western Europe. It can only be compared to data from the United States which have the highest number of teenage mothers in the developed world (see Unicef 2002: 4).[4]

Nevertheless, a steady decrease of the rate has taken place in the United Kingdom since 1998 which table 1a (and table 1b, appendix) with figures from England clearly shows.[5]

Table 1a: Under-18 conception rate for England: 1998-2008

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families, Office for National Statistics and Teenage Pregnancy Unit, 2010

Rate per thousand females aged 15-17

2008 data are provisional

From this diagram, on can see that in 2007 there was a slight rise in the rate but in 2008 the overall downward development continued. According to the Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group "the majority of under-18 conceptions occur in girls aged 16 or 17" and "20% of under-18 conceptions are repeat pregnancies" (TPIA 12, 3). The percentage of teenage conceptions to girls under 16 amounted to only 8 per cent of the overall conceptions to females aged under 20 in 2006 (see Office for National Statistics 2009a: 23). However, significant regional differences are evident from the various statistics: "The North East had the highest under-18 conception rate in 2008, with 49 per 1,000 women age 15-17 falling pregnant. The East of England had the lowest rate with 31.4 per 1,000 young women getting pregnant." (BBC)

In general, the United Kingdom shows the same trend as other Western nations, that is to say, "[…] the average age at childbirth has risen steadily since then [the mid-1940s] and is projected to be around 29 years for women born in the early 1980s onwards" (Office for National Statistics 2009a: 22) which implies that the age gap between teenage mothers and the majority of mothers has become even more prominent. (see table 3, appendix) The trend goes towards giving birth later, so teenage mothers giving birth at a relatively young age become a minority.

After the Labour Party took the reins of government in 1997, they put the fight against the high rates of teenage pregnancy on top of their agenda and "[…] had pledged in 1999 to halve teenage pregnancy rates among under-18s in England by this year but is widely expected to miss that target." (BBC) According to the available data the BBC article is correct, however, in general, the rate has been falling slowly but steadily since 1998.

Sociodemographic research shows that a general increase in births has taken place over the last five decades in Great Britain. This is due to "[…] two main factors – increasing fertility rates among women born in the UK and the increasing population of non-UK born women of childbearing age." (Office for National Statistics 2009b: 1) Against the backdrop of this incline, teenage conception rates have been constant over the period 1976-98, respectively have fallen during the last decade (cf. Botting and Dunnell 38). Moreover, "[between] the 1998 baseline year and 2005, the under-18 conception rate fell by 11.8%, to its lowest level for over 20 years." (Unicef 2007: 22)

Despite this positive development, an earlier report by Unicef on Teenage Births in Rich Nations emphasizes a very interesting contrast between the progress in Norway since 1970 and the development in the United Kingdom: "Norway and the United Kingdom began the period with comparable rates, but over the last three decades Norway has seen teen births fall by 72 per cent – almost double the 38 per cent drop seen in the United Kingdom." (Unicef 2002: 10) Unicef ascribes this astonishing difference to various factors. They assume that both countries, Norway and the United Kingdom, have experienced a dramatic change of traditional values over the course of time similar to many other Western countries. However, they dealt with this transformation in different ways. Countries like Norway, being able to reduce its teenage pregnancy rates substantially,

[…] have embraced the socio-sexual transformation but have also taken steps to equip their young people to cope with it. By the same reasoning, those countries with the highest teenage birth rates tend to be those that have marched far along the road from traditional values whilst doing little to prepare their young people for the new and different world in which they find themselves." (Unicef 2002: 13)

1.1.2 Social Benefits as an Enticement for Childbearing – a Myth?

There exists a common and widely-held presumption among the public which is also frequently expressed by the media that the receipt of social benefits and teenage pregnancy rates are interrelated. This opinion does not only refer to the fact that many teenage mothers depend on social benefits once their child is born,[6] rather the presumption goes as far as claiming that "[…] welfare provision for unmarried teenage mothers is an encouragement to irresponsible childbearing" as Unicef stated when referring to opponents of liberal sex education (2002: 22). Arai declares this public perception to be one of the "worst prejudices (that young women connive to become pregnant solely to claim welfare benefits and social housing)" (19). Especially by the end of the 1980s and during the 1990s, "the problem was portrayed as illegitimate access to scarce social housing […]. Teenage motherhood became the symbol of the underclass reproducing themselves at the nation's expense." (Daguerre and Nativel 74)

Various studies have been conducted regarding this issue, however, the research findings cannot prove that social benefits encourage women to get pregnant. (see Kelly 425). In this chapter, I refer in particular to a paper written by Anne Gauthier who revised several studies on the impact of public policies – and the granting of social benefits is one of them - on demographic behaviour. She came to the conclusion that the research into a possible link has led to contradictory findings on account of the complexity of this relation (cf. 2). Particularly, on teenage pregnancy she argues that "[…] contrary to right-wing claims that teenage girls have babies to take advantage of welfare benefits (Murray 1984), the evidence is not strong to support such claims." (14). She also describes the scientific procedure in order to get reliable results and draws a convincing conclusion:

[…] the potential effect of welfare benefits, say on teenage birth, is empirically measured in multivariate models by including the value of welfare benefits to which a teenager would be eligible to if she were to have a child. This value of benefits […] is then contrasted to the potential income of a potential spouse, and to the teenager’s own estimated future income. While these estimations are done with great statistical sophistication, one may wonder if these are ‘inputs’ that are well known to the teenage girl when she is about to have sex with a partner. (17)

Her arguments rather go into the direction that other aspects are more decisive for a teenage girl to influence her decision to have a child or not. For instance, neighbourhood may have a stronger impact because a high proportion of welfare recipients and other teenage mothers in the girls' area could all contribute to the teenager's perception of her own opportunities in life. "In this case, welfare benefits, thus, would only indirectly influence teenage pregnancy through neighbourhood characteristics." (Gauthier 18)

On the other hand, research has to be mentioned strongly suggesting that higher cash benefits to single mothers function potentially as disincentives to take up full-time employment. (Gauthier 15) Not taking up an employment seems to be a reasonable decision and logical consequence for the majority of the women as "[…] although income from state benefits tends to be parsimonious, there may be little economic advantage […] if they work outside the home. [Consequently,] motherhood is a preferable option if the alternative is to work for inadequate wages." (Wilson and Huntington 68)

These arguments may help to clarify the reasons why so many single mothers live on welfare benefits. First of all, it is very difficult to raise a child and simultaneously work full-time, moreover very good child care facilities are essential for this. Secondly, teenage mothers are evidently too young to have completed a professional education, so their employment opportunities are largely restricted unless they take up low-wage labour. An alternative to the life of a stay-at-home mother could only be the completion of secondary or professional education which has to be financed by someone. Thirdly, a lack of other perspectives and expectations from life due to missing role models may also play a substantial role.

However, the common opinion that teenagers get pregnant in order to obtain social benefits or housing, in simple words, blaming them of being too lazy to take up work, cannot be maintained because research findings just do not prove consistently this link (cf. also Wilson and Huntington 67). As mentioned above, the scientific findings are contradictory and they are not very convincing.

On the contrary, there is evidence that higher social benefits together with other strategies even reduce teenage pregnancy rates: "According to Esping-Andersen [ The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism 1990] generous welfare provision, especially extensive family policies, reduces the occurrence of child poverty, which in turn reduces the occurrence of teenage pregnancy." (Daguerre and Nativel 10) Examples like Norway with low teenage pregnancy rates on the one hand and generous welfare provision on the other hand are a persuasive support for this argument. The mere persistence of the opinion that a pecuniary intention is the basis of teenagers' decision to have a child suggests that there are other probably political reasons beneath the surface of this discourse in the public.

2. Factors Related to Teenage Pregnancy

Researchers have identified various factors which are associated with teenage pregnancy. The REPROSTAT 2 group concluded that these factors circulate within six broad themes: sociodemography, family structure, education, community, contraception and socioeconomy (see 631). This chapter presents a brief overview of all the factors mentioned, but concentrates on the issue of socioeconomic background because "findings demonstrate most consistently the association between socioeconomic inequalities and teenage pregnancy." (REPROSTAT 2 635) However, the sheer number of various influences also demonstrates that teenage pregnancy rates depend on a variety of aspects all interrelated with each other which makes the topic a rather complex one.

2.1 Various Factors

Sociodemographic factors include the age when teenagers begin sexual activity as well as changing family patterns during the past decades. Nowadays, sexual activity among teenager occurs much earlier than it used to do, probably resulting from a decrease in the average age of entry into puberty (see Unicef 2002: 12). Nevertheless, there are still significant variations "[…] in the percentage of young people who have had sexual intercourse by the age of 15 […] For 16 of the 17 OECD countries with available data, the proportion is between 15% and 28%; for the United Kingdom it is almost 40%." (Unicef 2006: 29) This data describes a significant development. Teenagers in the United Kingdom start sexual activity at a younger age than their peers in others countries.

The transformation of family patterns in the Western world during the last decades belongs to the field of sociodemography and to the broader theme of family structure. Daguerre and Nativel point out that the perception of teenage pregnancy as a problem can be traced back to "the late 1960s;it is strongly linked to demographic transitions, that is, the shift from traditional family patterns to individualist family patterns" (2). The traditional nuclear family model has gradually lost its predominance and other forms of social and family structures have developed. Unicef terms this change a 'socio-sexual revolution' which "has transformed some of the most basic patterns of personal and family life in the industrialized nations". (2002: 8) They identify five major transformations:

- rising average age at first birth
- falling overall fertility
- divorcing sex from marriage
- lengthening span of contraception
- rising levels of cohabitation (cf. Unicef 2002: 8)

The 'loss' of the nuclear family model consisting of a married couple and an average number of children is a highly ideologized topic. It is often connected to a simultaneous loss of traditional values in modern society. Hadfield argues that "[…] teenage pregnancy is often linked to outrage over the loss of childhood innocence, cycles of crime, and societal breakdown caused by the dissolution of ‘traditional families’." (256) However, this linkage has no conclusive foundation as teenage pregnancy rates are currently much lower than in the supposed 'golden age' of the family of the 1950s and early 60s. (cf. Duncan 1)[7] Nevertheless, teenage pregnancy serves as an indicator for the breakdown of the family. (see also appendix: table 4). Teenage mothers are usually not married, they live with their parents, sometimes they cohabitate with a partner or they are single mothers. Henceforth, they do not fit into the pattern of the nuclear family model and become a symbol of the so-called 'family breakdown'.

The theme of education does not only include education itself, but especially regarding the topic of teenage pregnancy it is associated with the 'correct' sex education in schools. The United Kingdom policy makers and public seem to have difficulties with this issue. The Sex Education Act of 1986 dealt with the topic in a rather moralistic way emphasizing the risks of promiscuity and casual sex. This approach lasted until the mid 1990s. (cf. Daguerre and Nativel 73) Public attitude towards teenage sex and teenage pregnancy have stayed negative since then and thus sex education has been a highly controversial topic in British society. During the Labour government it remained a critical issue even within the party itself. (cf. Daguerre and Nativel 79)

This controversy has been continuing although there are valid arguments that comprehensive sex education is essential for reducing teenage pregnancy rates which can be seen from examples like the Netherlands with a liberal sex education strategy and the lowest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe (appendix, table 2). Unicef explains that it is not only the availability of contraceptives but also the kind of sex education that teenagers receive in schools which plays an important role in the reduction of teenage pregnancy. Moreover, they add that "[…] it is not the difference in the average age at first sex or fewer abortions that gives the United Kingdom a higher rate of teenage births than other European nations but lower rates of contraceptive use." (Unicef 2002: 27) The question has to be posed if this lower acceptance of contraception is a consequence of insufficient sex education. Daguerre states that sex education in the United Kingdom focuses on the "risks associated with 'under-age sex' [...]. Teenagers are well aware that sex can be a pleasurable activity;otherwise adults would not be so interested in it." (Daguerre and Nativel 80) When young people themselves who are already practising sex are asked they criticize that "[…] sex education was too late, too biological and did not explain enough about contraception or the emotions involved in sexual relationships and pregnancy."(Jewell et al. 526)

In contrast, there are a number of researchers questioning the lack of knowledge among young people:

[The] evidence that there actually is a lack of knowledge, that increased knowledge reduces pregnancy, and that low knowledge ‘causes’ teen pregnancy, is equivocal. For example, Phoenix (1991) found that no mothers in her large qualitative sample of teenage mothers in London had become pregnant due to ignorance about sex and contraception, confirming a long line of empirical studies (see also Wellings and Kane 1999, Churchill et al 2000). (Duncan 2)

Besides, nowadays contraceptives are available in every supermarket chain, so it is indeed astonishing that the number of people practising unprotected sex leading to unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases is rather high. This suggests that it is not a lack of knowledge or non-availability but other, possibly subconscious factors that influence the decision whether to use contraception or not.

The influence of media on teenagers' sexual behaviour is a further factor which is linked to teenage pregnancy rates. This impact of media content has been a question controversially discussed in the United Kingdom during recent years. The concern principally focuses on the question if mass media content aimed at teenagers is encouraging them to perceive sex before the age of 16 as something normal and just adopt this behaviour (Millwood Hargrave and Halloran, 1996; Millwood Hargrave, 1999) (qtd. in Batchelor 3). Besides, the transfer of 'wrong' values has been examined. Unicef argues that

[…] the weakening of traditional attitudes has combined with commercial pressures to create more sexualised societies […]. Increasingly, sexual imagery and content are permeating the information and entertainment environments within which today’s teenagers develop awareness, experiment with identity, and live out their aspirations towards adulthood.(2002: 11–12)

Another theory by Daguerre and Nativel points out that teenager might feel left out if they do not comply with the new sexual norms of regular 'safe sex' as a way to happiness presented by the media (cf. 8).

On the one hand, there is no doubt about it that we are living in a more sexualised society, on the other hand, one has to ask if teenagers are just a passive audience, adopting whatever they are being served by the media. Batchelor takes this into consideration and states that young people "actively construct their own varied interpretations and understandings" (2). She adds that the interpretation of media content does not happen in a vacuum, but that teenagers actively mediate the messages by personal experience and in interaction with significant others (cf. 9). Besides, it is a difficult task to prove media effects on a certain behaviour. First of all, although the media are full of sex, the depiction of sexual content is not uniform. Secondly, how is it possible to prove a causality between watching (or reading) and behaviour? (cf. Batchelor 6–7)

Peer groups as part of the community theme are crucial to teenagers' well-being to feel socially integrated (cf. Unicef 2006: 25) but also in order to obtain and exchange knowledge, or to get advice and support from people their age. Jewell et al. state in a qualitative study with young mothers' groups that "[the] women supported the concept of ‘peer education’—wanting information from someone with personal experience." (526) Some young women also turned to their parents for advice, but sexuality was usually a delicate topic to discuss with parents. All in all, "[a] major source of information for all women was other young women, but again, the information was often inadequate:" (Jewell et al. 526)

The factor community is evidently also related to the factor social background. Here, the term community is used to describe the local area where the teenagers live, i.e. the immediate neighbourhood, friends and family. Arai describes how this factor influences teenagers' perception of early motherhood. Areas with a visibly high number of teenage mothers may lead to the perception that it is a 'normal' condition to get a child at a young age. (cf. Arai 27) This aspect is particularly true for poorer areas where "[…] the effects of social interaction with others are likely to be stronger, given the lack of opportunities in such places and the paucity of positive role models of behaviour (Brewster, 1994;Sucoff and Upchurch, 1998;Burton and Jarrett, 2000; Dietz, 2002)." (Arai 27) According to Duncan, qualitative studies have proven that the decision to become pregnant makes 'moral sense' to teenagers who live in these kind of local communities and this phenomenon would also explain the remarkable social and geographical differences in teenage pregnancy rates in the United Kingdom. (cf. Duncan 6) Therefore, one must not underestimate the role of the community in teenagers' lives and decision-making.

Risk behaviour belongs to individual factors influencing teenage pregnancy. It includes attitudes towards contraception, the consumption of drugs and alcohol, and several other health-risk behaviours. "Many health-compromising lifestyle factors (e.g. risky sexual behaviours, alcohol, drug or tobacco use) were also shown to have some association with teenage pregnancy." (REPROSTAT 2 634) A study on young people in the United Kingdom shows the extent of risk behaviour and also a lack of knowledge as "three in 10 young people did not perceive having sex without a condom as at all risky; four in 10 said binge drinking is not at all risky;" (Unicef 2007: 40). Particularly the binge drinking culture in the United Kingdom is indeed a dangerous behaviour because the age of youngsters getting regularly drunk has decreased and people – including teenagers – do not act sensibly while being drunk. The Unicef report explains that the amount of alcohol consumed by young people in the UK continues to climb. They add that "[high] levels of alcohol consumption are linked with a range of high-risk behaviours, including teenage pregnancy, anti-social behaviour, offending, and truancy." (Unicef 2007: 25) Table 5a in the appendix shows that the UK maintains the highest position among all other countries with regard to alcohol consumption among children and teenagers. The general risk-taking of young people in the UK is also at the questionable top position far ahead other countries. (see appendix, table 5b)

However, for a teenager it is normal to be prone to risk-taking behaviours because during puberty he/she is usually in opposition to the adult world and tries out boundaries and limits set up by adults and society. It is a time of seeking an identity including trial and error.

2.2 Social Background and Deprivation

As already mentioned, there exists an evident connection between social background, i.e. deprivation and high teenage pregnancy rates. "The correlate of early pregnancy and motherhood referred to most frequently in the research literature from the developed world is socioeconomic status (SES)." (Arai 21) Unicef provides a more comprehensive definition of the term deprivation in its Child Poverty Report. They identified three components of deprivation: relative income poverty (below 50 % of the national median), households without an employed adult, but also few educational resources in the household. (cf. Unicef 2006: 4–5) This connection between deprivation and teenage pregnancy explains the significant variation in the rates in different areas and even communities of the United Kingdom. "Of the five UK studies which investigated the link between pregnancy and area deprivation all found a strong association: the areas with higher levels of deprivation were found to have higher conception rates." (REPROSTAT 2 631)

According to a study by Jewell et al., people from disadvantaged backgrounds also hold different attitudes towards pregnancy, abortion and contraception than their more affluent counterparts. Additionally, their wishes for the future diverged from women from an advantaged background. The advantaged group delayed childbearing and focused on the career whereas women from a disadvantaged background felt "that the best age for starting a family was between 17 and 25 years […]." (Jewell et al. 524) There was also a difference in knowledge and use of contraception. Women from an advantaged background usually knew more about contraception, especially emergency contraception which they used after unprotected sex in contrary to women from a disadvantaged background. (cf. Jewell et al. 526) Similar divergences can be stated on the issue of abortion. Teenagers from deprived areas take the step of abortion less frequently than more affluent teenagers. "[Over] 60 % of teenage pregnancies in the least-deprived areas were terminated, compared with around half that figure in poor areas." (Arai 22)

The social background has a strong impact on young people regarding their perspectives and attitudes towards their future. There are scholars who derive high teenage pregnancy rates from low future prospects for the young women (cf. Wilson and Huntington 64) Arai argues:

[...] young women (and men) from disadvantaged background do appear to have a different perspective on life, a 'limited' sense of life's possibilities or 'limited' temporal horizons. [...] Importantly here, limited temporal horizons (or 'discounting the future') affect perceptions about the optimal time for child bearing. (Arai 33)

In other words, young girls from deprived areas predominant perception is that they have nothing to lose if they get pregnant early.

There are several questions resulting from this connection between deprivation and teenage pregnancy which are being discussed controversially in the literature. Is teenage pregnancy a contributing or even causative factor for later deprivation and does it thus lead to a continuing cycle of social disadvantage for a certain class? Or is it rather the case that the young mothers are disadvantaged anyway and a pregnancy would not make a difference for their future outcome? Opinions differ on these questions. Unicef explained that "[…] there is still a substantial degree of disadvantage that can be directly attributed to the fact of having given birth while still a teenager." (2002: 16) A few years later, their statement sounded differently: "Many girls who give birth in their teens have themselves grown up with the kind of poverty and disadvantage that would be likely to have negative consequences whether or not they wait […] before having children." (Unicef 2006: 31) Recent studies also focus on the assumption that a pregnancy is not a causative factor for further disadvantage. "There is a body of statistical evidence, from both Britain and the USA, which shows that future social disadvantage of teenage mothers relates to their pre-pregnancy social background, particularly class and deprivation." (Duncan 2) These varying conclusions and opinions have future consequences for social policies regarding teenage pregnancy. Assuming that teenage pregnancy is a cause for deprivation, a reduction in the number of pregnancies should logically also reduce poverty and social exclusion because teenage girls could advance through education. On the other hand, if deprivation itself is not a consequence of teenage pregnancy, then it would make more sense to improve the deprived conditions in order to create an effective strategy against high teenage pregnancy rates.

2.2.1 Class

With reference to the fact that teenage pregnancies occur more often in deprived areas, the question arises if there still exists a society in the United Kingdom primarily defined by class distinctions. What about the much-trumpeted concept of social mobility in a post-industrial society? Rosenberg reasons that all definitions of the term class "start from the perception of an unequal distribution of wealth and social stratification in a given society." (4) Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction (1979) described a more expanded definition of class. Apart from the economic standing he emphasized "[...] the importance of family and education (social and cultural capital) producing a class-specific taste and habitus (lifestyle) which is then used for social distinction." (qtd. in Rosenberg 5)

Regarding the economic situation in OECD countries Unicef stated that the gap between rich and poor has broadened as "there is a pronounced trend towards lower relative earnings for the lowest paid." (2006: 7) Unicef makes a distinction between inclusive societies with low levels of income inequality and exclusive societies with high income inequality. Interestingly, exclusive societies with a bigger gap between rich and poor show higher teenage pregnancy rates. The United States and the United Kingdom have a position at the bottom of the list, that is to say high income inequality combined with high teenage pregnancy rates (see table 6). (Unicef 2002: 15-16) In correlation with class affiliation this means in figures that "[…] in the United Kingdom, the likelihood of teenage pregnancy has been shown to be ten times higher for girls whose parents are unskilled manual workers than for girls whose parents are middle class professionals." (Unicef 2002: 15)

The economic gap between rich and poor also affects the perception of teenagers concerning their own future prospects. Young people are well aware of their standing in society. Wilson and Huntington argue that "[…] in contrast to the aspirations of their educated middle-class counterparts, working outside the home for many young mothers does not mean a highly paid professional job following on from higher education. The reality is more likely to be menial work for poor wages." (69)

The concept of social mobility is certainly a strategy to reduce class distinction and social inequality. The question remains to what extent this mobility is feasible, for instance, for a teenage girl living on a housing estate in a poor area with low financial and educational resources at home and surroundings which suggests to her that her trajectory in life is predetermined. For reasons of space, I can not examine further this interesting topic of social mobility, however, according to McRobbie, especially women are still "[...] inscribed within the older class structure, where family background and parental occupation comprise a habitus of dispositions, inclinations and perceived limits and boundaries of expectation." (30) At the same time young women and teenagers have become a metaphor for social mobility and "[…] are charged with the task of delivering (or at least playing a key role in) the successful and prosperous society of the Blair vision [...]." (McRobbie 24) The chapters on ideology and political background will deal further with this issue.

During the late 1980s and 1990s the discussion about a new so-called 'underclass' occurred in the United States and the United Kingdom, meaning a "[...] large group outside all traditional categories, the long-term unemployed and the unemployables living in desolate circumstances […]". (Rosenberg 4) Economic restructuring had changed traditional working-class communities and Charles Murray (1990) coined the term 'underclass' which was not only related to poverty, but also to increasing crime rates, drug misuse, truancy, illegitimacy and single-mother households depending on welfare benefits (see Fink 145). These are indeed all very negative features, except maybe female-headed households. This new 'underclass' was blamed for exploiting the social system and cultivating a dependency on welfare through their children. (cf. Atkinson et al. 3) Thus, teenage mothers and lone mothers living on social benefits became the epitome of this 'underclass'. The expression 'pramface' arose which "[...] is a term of abuse directed towards plain working-class girls, [...] a single mum pushing her baby, unemployed, reliant on benefits and without the support and status of a male partner and breadwinner." (McRobbie 31–32) Rosenberg argues that these young women are discriminated against and stigmatised because they do neither comply to the current norms of ambition and work nor to middle-class aesthetic standards (5). The character of the teenage mother Vicky Pollard embodies a hyperbole of a member of the 'underclass' in the TV series Little Britain.


[1] For a review of these research papers see Bonell, 255-272 and Arai, 80.

[2] The REPROSTRAT 2 group examines reproductive health indicators in the European Union on behalf of the European Commission. It published a systematic review on factors related to teenage pregnancy.

[3] Conception data include pregnancies that result in one or more live or still births (a maternity), or a legal abortion. They do not include miscarriages or illegal abortions (Teenage Pregnancy Unit 1).

[4] Table 2 in the appendix shows a comparison of teenage births in OECD nations.

[5] The tendency in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is similar (for further information see http://www.fpa.org.uk/Professionals/Factsheets/teenagepregnancy)

[6] (cf. Office for National Statistics 2009a, 122-123 and Unicef 2002, 9) The latter source also gives information on later life outcomes of teenage mothers.

[7] see also appendix table 4: Teenage birth rates now and 30 years ago

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Teenage pregnancies in the UK and their perception in the British print media
University of Paderborn  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
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underclass, stereotypes, teenage pregnancy, cultural concepts, pregnancy rate
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Birgit Wilpers (Author), 2010, Teenage pregnancies in the UK and their perception in the British print media, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/163191


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