Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Jane Graham: We must help teen mums, not treat them like pariahs

Switching on my radio first thing this morning as usual, I thought at first it had re-tuned to some Chris Morris-inspired satire overnight.

But no, it quickly became apparent that not only was the phone-in caller demanding a “return to the stigmatisation of teenage mothers” entirely serious, but there was a queue of listeners waiting to back him up.

The story which prompted this — some might say ‘harsh but fair’, I would veer more towards ‘insane and medieval’ — response was a report from NHS watchdog Nice voicing concerns that teenage mothers are missing out on important antenatal care and might benefit from special classes being set up in schools.

This notion — still at an embryonic stage — has already been pounced on by the Family Education Trust, whose director Norman Wells said he was worried that school antenatal classes would lead to a ‘normalisation’ of teenage pregnancy.

Wells also worried about schools shouldering “the burden of problems created by a permissive society”.

His words were echoed by various protesters this week, often supplemented with the argument that if we could return to the days when teenage mums were universally shunned, this would give all those kids who get pregnant to get hold of government benefits and ‘free houses’ serious pause for thought.

I’ve had a look in the thesaurus, but there aren’t enough synonyms for the word ‘wrong’ to cover just how I feel about this line of reasoning.

Aside from the fact that the 40,000 UK teenagers who give birth every year are more likely to suffer medical complications during pregnancy precisely because they don’t get proper antenatal care, the truth is that, when it comes to under-age sex, the genie is out of the bottle, and there is just no way of squeezing it back in.

The idea that any advanced society should select a social group — vulnerable, traumatised young girls in this case — and deprive them of compassion, tolerance and the paltry sum of money they’re entitled to in order to display their depressed, poverty-stricken lifestyles as salutary tales for other children is unthinkable.

If we have any hope of making good citizens out of these girls, turning them into adults who feel a responsibility to and a stake in, our society, this is not the way to do it. Or ‘Doh!’, as Homer Simpson might put it.

I agree that the UK teenage pregnancy rates are a serious concern, and I’d be very unhappy if my own daughter gave birth when she was a schoolgirl.

But if it was to happen, I hope the nature of our relationship would mean that I’d be the first person she’d tell, rather than the last.

And bearing in mind that the baby was coming whether I liked it or not, I hope I’d offer her understanding as well as some decent practical advice.

Banishing her from home to make an example of her for the benefit of her siblings — the private equivalent of socially stigmatising teen mums — would not just be morally wrong, it would set her off on a path of desperation and resentment which could lead to long-term disaster for both her and her baby.

Bearing in mind the unforgivably inhumane treatment of unmarried young mothers in Ireland’s recent past, there should be no part of these islands which better comprehends what tremendous harm can be done by a society which turns its back on its neediest.

Let’s close the door on that black past forever.

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