Why Are UK Teen Pregnancy Rates Dropping?

Nicky Broyd

July 18, 2018

In the last decade the number of teenage pregnancies in England and Wales has fallen by 55% to a record low. 

According to the latest statistics (from 2016) the under-18 conception rate was down to 18.9 conceptions per thousand women aged 15 to 17. In 1969 the under-18 conception rate was 47.1.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, said Scotland and Northern Ireland have also seen significant declines in teenage pregnancies.
 

Research

The research was conducted by YouGov and bpas which has published the findings in a new report, Social media, SRE and Sensible Drinking: Understanding the Dramatic Decline In Teenage Pregnancy.

YouGov conducted four online focus groups with 16 to 18-year-olds, alongside a diary in which the young people documented their day-to-day lives over the course of 4 days, including a weekend.   

The results of the focus groups were then used to inform a demographically weighted quantitative survey of 1,004 16 to 18-year-olds which was conducted online.

Possible Reasons

The research was commissioned because there is no clear consensus about the reason or reasons for the decline in teenage pregnancies. 

The bpas report has identified what it sees as some of the main factors: 

  • Social media – relationships, social and sexual, are increasingly experienced online. The research found those who socialised more in person with their friends or partner were more likely to be sexually active suggesting low levels of face to face interaction may be linked to falling teenage pregnancy rates. 

  • Family focus – today's young people appear more family orientated viewing time with their family as more important than time with friends (33% vs 27%) impacting upon opportunities for sexual relationships.

  • Low alcohol intake – those surveyed were drinking less than previous generations and nearly a quarter (24%) said they never drank alcohol. Teenagers who consumed alcohol at lower levels were less likely to have engaged in sexual activity.

  • Life prospects – young people felt a pregnancy at a young age could disrupt their academic and career aspirations and interfere with their hopes and plans for a good quality of life.

  • Education – The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, which ran from 1999 until 2010, emphasised improved sex and relationships education (SRE) and access to effective contraception. Those young people who rated their SRE as good were less likely to have had sex than those who rated it as poor (26% vs 42%). However, most young people questioned for the survey had an overwhelmingly negative view of the SRE they received. The current government is proposing mandatory SRE from September 2019. 

High Rates and Abortions

Not everywhere saw a decline in teenage pregnancies. According to bpas 60% of all local authorities have at least one ward with a high rate of under-18 conceptions.

As teenage pregnancies have fallen the number of under 18s having an abortion has increased in England and Wales from 31.6% in 1995 to 51.4% in 2016, and in Scotland from 33.6% in 1995 to 45.8% in 2015.
 

Reaction

Katherine O’Brien, head of policy research at bpas said: "It’s clear that there is no silver bullet in preventing unplanned pregnancy at any age. While contraception and sex and relationships education can play a vital role, they must be delivered at a high quality in order to do so. Our research suggests that the government’s plan for mandatory [SRE] from September 2019 has the potential to further bring down teenage conception rates, but only if it is comprehensive and addresses the needs of young people today."

Professor Lesley Regan, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians Gynaecologists, said: "It is encouraging to see that teenagers who evaluated their SRE as good are more likely to delay sexual activity. However, it is particularly disappointing that a significant proportion of young people are not receiving a high-quality of SRE.

"Cuts to local public health budgets are making it difficult for some young people to access contraceptive services, despite good use of highly-effective contraception playing a crucial role in reducing unplanned teenage pregnancy rates.

"We call on the Government to ensure the needs of young people are addressed comprehensively as a matter of urgency through mandatory and high-quality SRE in schools and fully funded accessible contraceptive services."
 

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