Britain, US Have Highest Teen Pregnancy Rates, UN Says

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

London ( - Britain has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate in the developed world, according to a U.N. report, but pro-life and sex education advocates offered differing interpretations of the statistics Thursday.

The research carried out by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in 28 developed countries found a pregnancy rate in Britain of 30.8 per every 1,000 teens.

That figure was eclipsed only by the United States, where 52.1 out of every 1,000 teenagers get pregnant.

Countries with the lowest teen pregnancy rates included the Netherlands, Switzerland, Japan and Korea.

The report outlines several reasons behind teenage pregnancy and says a "sexualized society," with sexual images "permeating the information and entertainment environments" may be one of the causes of high rates among American and British teens.

The report highlighted a few bright spots, however. Over the past 30 years, Britain has seen a 38 percent fall in teenage pregnancies and other nations have had even more long-term success.

The report also says that teenage pregnancy may not be as detrimental to society as once thought.

"The association between teenage births and later-life problems may have been exaggerated," the report says.

UNICEF said Britain's teens suffer from lack of access to contraception.

"Contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a closed atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy," the report said. "As one British teenager puts it, 'It sometimes seems as if sex is compulsory but contraception has failed.'"

Differing views

Paul Dannon of the London-based Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), took issue with UNICEF's assertions that lack of contraceptive access is at the root of relatively high British teen pregnancy rates.

"You would think the morning-after pill would reduce pregnancy, but there has been an overall increase since it was introduced," he said.

The emergency contraceptive pill Levonelle has been available to without a prescription to British women over age 16 since the beginning of last year. The government has also launched pilot projects to provide the pill to girls under 16 in some areas.

"The U.N. has already been left high and dry as an organization by continuing to suggest that the world population is spiraling out of control," Dannon said. "Presumably, the U.N. would want more morning-after pills thrown at teenagers," a stance the SPUC vehemently disagrees with.

But Dannon said his organization isn't necessarily against sex education, as long as it details the "horrors of abortion."

"Those who bring sex education to children often leave out the psychological and emotional traumas of abortion," he said.

He put the blame of teenage pregnancy rates squarely on the government's policy to increase the availability of contraception and abortion.

"If the government is going to carry on with this strategy, we'll end up with more terminations and more teenage pregnancies," he said.

But Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association (FPA), said the British government's Teen Pregnancy Unit -- a program set up in 1998 -- has had some initial success that wasn't reflected in the U.N. report.

The FPA said that pregnancy among under-18s in Britain has gone down by more than 6 percent since 1998 despite recent figures that indicate teen pregnancy might be on the rise again.

Weyman said the overall reduction in teen pregnancy would carry on, however.

"We are optimistic that the work now underway at both local and national levels will ensure that the downward trend will continue," she said.

"Although the picture painted by UNICEF is grim, there is a lot of action to tackle the problem in this area," an FPA spokeswoman said.

The FPA also welcomed the report's recognition that teenagers are getting highly sexual messages from the media.

"Teenage pregnancy is a complex problem." Weyman said. "It won't be solved overnight, and it is vital that the momentum is kept up to provide better sex and relationships education, better access to sexual health services and better support for teenage parents."

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