Sunday 27 May 2018

Youngest mothers deserve our support

The refusal to provide a school place to a young girl who had recently given birth was inexcusable and the reason provided was at best gauche. It was decidedly harsh.

According to reports, she had been refused a place when she was pregnant and on reapplying after she had given birth, was refused again.

Nobody wants to encourage teenagers to become pregnant and it is likely that this school's disapproval of teenage pregnancy was prompted by not wanting her to become a role model for others in the school, resulting in the controversial and much publicised outcome.

According to data from the Central Statistics Office the number of births to teenagers has been falling steadily.

Data from the first quarter of 2011 (the latest for which information is available) indicates that there were 498 births to women under 20, representing 2.5pc of the total while in 2006 there were 649, representing 4.1pc of the total births.

More detailed examination of the figures show that the majority of these births were to the 18 and 19-year-old age group and in 2011, 119 were to women 17 or under.

The discourse about pregnancy in teenagers has tended to focus on negative social outcomes for parents and children, of which poor educational attainment, financial problems, long-term welfare dependency and mental and physical health problems are the most obvious consequences for these young mothers.

For children, poverty, educational difficulties and behavioural problems have been identified.

However, many of the studies that identified these problems were flawed since they focussed on groups who were already experiencing various deprivations and the negative impact of single motherhood was related in part to aspects of the young person's childhood, family and social background rather than just to the pregnancy itself, although it played a contributory role.

This gloomy outlook has been disputed by those who have documented positive outcomes for young women and their children when educational support is provided. And receiving such support may improve young mothers' satisfaction and self-esteem levels.

Other studies have shown that education helps mitigate the negative effects of early pregnancy on teenagers' mental health.

Notwithstanding the findings of research such as this, single motherhood at any age is difficult and especially so for teenagers who may not have the maturity or the skills to parent without the support of the father of the child, her parents and, frequently, state assistance.

Since teenage pregnancy tends to be concentrated in disadvantaged groups the necessity for additional resources is obvious.

For these reasons, all societies discourage teenage pregnancy. There is a debate about how best to achieve this and it is, not surprisingly, fraught with controversy.

The approaches vary from promoting abstinence to delaying the initiation of sexual activity, from providing contraceptives and the morning-after pill freely, through the school if necessary, to encouraging abortion.

Both sides in this debate speak of the reality of modern life.

On the one hand there is the reality of a sexualised culture in which sexual activity is considered the norm even for teenagers and with no prospect of going back to the older mores of sexual abstinence until marriage.

The other face of reality is a soaring rate of sexually transmitted diseases and infertility and evidence of regret at early sexual activity documented now in several studies.

In the middle of this are the children of young mothers often born into social deprivation.

While the debate continues about the best options for reducing teenage pregnancy, there will continue to be teenagers in our towns and parishes who find themselves planning for motherhood when they should be planning careers.

The partners of these young women may or may not be around, but in all likelihood they too are in similar social circumstances.

Young mothers who want to improve their lives through education rather than simply opting out deserve our support. They also deserve praise for continuing with the pregnancy when they could so easily have taken the short trip to the UK to have it terminated.

Hopefully the approach taken by the Tipperary school is the exception. Young women in these difficult circumstances should at least anticipate having their educational needs met, especially when so much else in their lives appears to be conspiring against them.

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