The Telegraph

12 January 2001

Why girls become pregnant when their fathers vanish

By Mary Kenny
The Daily Telegraph/Electronic Telegraph (London, UK)

Of course there will be hard cases in the matter of the morning-after contraceptive Pill. It doesn't take much imagination to picture the plight of a desperate young woman who has perhaps had a little too much to drink the night before and behaved unwisely.

The Methodist Church, which has given its support to the use of the morning-after Pill for young schoolgirls, has said that the treatment would be "in the best interests" of teenagers requiring it. "Should a life be blighted for one mistake?" asks a newspaper reader, advocating access to the medication. Identify with the plight of an anxious young woman and the general answer would probably be "no".

But what may be understandable for an individual, in exceptional circumstances, may not be beneficial for society. The old Marxists, who have long disappeared from the Labour Party -- or anywhere else -- did at least grasp that point, because they had the mental discipline to analyse history and society. There is a difference between an individual remedy and a social policy. That is why hard cases make bad law.

And this is one of the troubling aspects of the spread of emergency contraception, now to be made available in some schools to under-age girls without parental consent: that the outcome of using it as an instrument of social policy may make matters worse for young girls "at risk" of early pregnancy.

It is much more likely to encourage the general idea that there is no problem having a hectic sex life at 12 or 13, since you can always obtain a dose of Levonelle as a shield against unwanted pregnancy. Yet after a young girl has used the medication six or seven times - and I have met some who have - she will eventually try to become pregnant for fear that she may have damaged her system by overuse of high-dose progestogen. So even as a protection against teenage pregnancy, it may not be effective in the long run.

I have some familiarity with this subject, because last year I interviewed 22 young mothers, who had all become pregnant in their early teens. Some were very sweet young women and I was touched by the way that the maternal instinct could surge forth so protectively in a girl of 14 or 15: they were in most cases doing their best with their babies.

But what struck me most forcibly was that 18 of these girls - out of the 22 chosen at random - had effectively had no fathers themselves during their growing years. They had abandoned the family, walked out, or didn't want to know. In one case, the father had died when the girl was 12, which, of course, couldn't be helped, but it still produced a rush into a sexual relationship -- and motherhood.

Again and again, in talking about their early sexual experiences - and sex usually started at 12 or 13 - the young women mentioned their fathers, without any prompting. Kelly, an only child, was pregnant at 14: "I saw my father only three or four times a year after my parents divorced. He didn't take much interest in me. He wanted an easy way to get rid of me." Joanna, a pretty blonde from Manchester, became pregnant at 15: "I set out to do it. I hadn't seen my dad for two years previously. He had been a big part of my life before."

Jilly, pregnant at 15, "went wild" after her parents split up when she was 13: "I was out every night. I lost my virginity at 13. I didn't care. I was sleeping around with people. It was just to annoy my dad. That's why I went out with an older man - because I knew my dad wouldn't answer back to me, if I had some older man." When she triumphantly became pregnant, just to spite her father, she went and told him and "he just shouted at me that I was to get rid of it". Abortion was interpreted by her as yet another rejection, so she kept the baby.

Hearing these young women talk about their upbringing brought home something to which I hadn't previously given much thought: the value of a good father in a girl's life, one who protects and watches over his daughters, and provides them with a safe but masculine source of love.

A young girl who does not have that is much more likely to get into early sexual relationships, and to want to have a child as a kind of compensation. I even gained some insight into my own schoolgirl days: I was an out-of-control teenager myself (though, fortunately, sex and pregnancy were not then prevalent for schoolgirls), and I now think that my father's death had a lot to do with it.

It is exasperating to observe the superficial approach to the problem of teenage pregnancy often taken by those in authority. The Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, gave his sanction to the morning-after Pill by pointing to the statistics indicating that Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe.

He didn't seem interested in probing any deeper into the reasons behind this. In fact, one of the reasons why many Continental countries - France, Germany, Italy, Greece and the Netherlands - have much lower teenage pregnancy rates is simply that they have less divorce and that civil society is more supportive of marriage. There is a higher cost when a father walks away.

We all understand that any woman in a ghastly panic might well seek a morning-after Pill. But I find it sad to think that so many more very young girls, already vulnerable and hungry for love, so lacking in the proper protection a father can extend, will be made even more vulnerable to a kind of sexual exploitation by the promiscuous use of this medication.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2001.