Teenage pregnancy and sexual health in Britain

The 1950s

1951: The teenage birth rate rose throughout the 1940s from a rate of 15.0 in every thousand in 1941 to 21.3. The birth rate to women of all ages peaked in 1947 then fell till the mid 1950's before beginning to rise again.

Illegitimate teenage births made up just a small proportion of all illegitimate births during the 1950s, at just under 15% with over half of all illegitimate births being to women over the age of 25.

1952: The Family Planning Association, which was set up in the 1930s, began to offer contraceptive advice to single women who were just about to wed.. There was around 1 in 6 pregnant brides during the decade, the proportion being even higher for teenagers with 1 in 4 being pregnant on their wedding day.

1954 A Study in Manchester revealed that between the years 1937 & 1954, almost a quarter of underage girls coming to the attention of one female police officer regarding under age sex were pregnant. It was also noted that the girls often came from particular backgrounds, either broken homes or of bad parental influence. It was also revealed that they also tended to have a lower than average IQ.

1959: By the end of the 1950s the number of teenage births had risen nearly 50% from 33,000 in 1955 to 46,000, a rate of 31.6. The numbers of births to girls under 16 remained constant during the late 1940's and early half of the 1950's. From 1955, the numbers of under 16's giving birth more than doubled.

There was a decline in the proportion of teenage births occurring outside marriage, from a third in 1945 to 16% in 1951, (5% for women of all ages) a proportion that changed little throughout the 1950's.

A study in Manchester showed that there was an increase in the number of teenage men & women visiting sexual health clinics for treatment of veneral disease. 23% of women seen at these clinics were teenagers compared to only 10% in 1939. In men it rose from 3.8% in 1939 to 4.8%.

The 1960s

1961: A study of Scottish women revealed that almost a quarter of single women were sexually experienced before their 20th birthday, the proportion haven risen from 6% during the late 1940s and 15% during the late 1950s.

The combined oral contraceptive pill became available, though initially only to married women. The proportion of teenage women who were married rose from 5% in 1951 to 8%.

1963: A quarter of all women attending sexual health clinics with the sexually transmitted infection Gonorrhoea was under the age of 20.

1964: The number of births to women of all ages had risen 11% since 1960 to a post-World War II high of almost 900,000. Compared with an increase of almost 49% to 76,000 (43 per 1,000) among teenagers in the same period. The number of teenage brides marrying for the first time topped 100,000. The proportion of them pregnant on their wedding day had increased from 25% during the 1950s to almost 40%, more than double the proportion to that of women in their twenties.

The proportion of teenage births outside marriage had risen to almost 25%, the most marked increase was in the number of girls under 16 giving birth, with an almost 50% increase between 1959 and 1960 alone. 1 in 20 girls under 16 were sexually active and the number of births to girls under 16 had increased by 125% since 1959.

The first comprehensive survey of sexual behaviour in Britain amongst unmarried teenagers revealed that a third of boys and almost 1 in 6 girls were sexually experienced by the age of 18. It also estimated that around 1 in 3 teenage girls who engaged in premarital sexual intercourse fell pregnant. Also revealed in the survey was that 1 in 5 of sexually experienced girls and two fifths of sexually experienced boys always used birth control. The most common form of birth control being the condom used by around 80% of the sexually active teenagers.

Helen Brook set-up the Brook Advisory Centre's offering contraceptive advice to young single people under the age of 25.

1966: A Home Office survey on adoption revealed that the natural mother in over half of all illegitimate non-parental adoptions during the year were under the age of 21. There was almost 18,000 illegitimate adoptions during the year with 14,000 being adopted to someone other than the parent(s) (non-parental)

1967: A change in the law allowed local health authorities to offer contraceptive services to unmarried people if they so wished; though by 1968 only 1 in 6 authorities were providing such a service.. Abortion was also legalised.

1969: Brook Advisory Centres were now offering contraceptive advice to over 10,000 unmarried people under 25, the majority were aged between 19 and 21 with around 1 in 6 being under 19.

Over 9,500 teenage girls opted for an abortion in Britain in the first full year of legalisation, (almost 1 in 5 of all abortions) the majority of whom were single. A survey of women seeking an abortion by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service revealed that almost two fifths of parents of single pregnant teenage girls were unaware of their daughters pregnancy, the majority of these being to teenagers who were not living at home.

Even though the birth rate to women of all ages was in decline having peaked in 1964, the teenage birth rate continued to rise to a rate of 49.6 per 1000 girls. Over 6,500 girls under 16 became pregnant with a quarter ending in legal abortion.

The 1970s

1970: Family Planning Clinics were now mandated to offer contraception to unmarried people.

1971: Research revealed that illegitimate teenage births were more likely to occur to women from a manual social class background than a non-manual social class background. Also that over half of women having an illegitimate birth before the age of 18, would go on to have a legitimate birth before the age of 25 compared to only a third for women who didn't have an illegitimate birth in their teens.

A doctor was reported for informing the parents of a 16 year-old girl that she had come to him seeking contraception. This prompted the British Medical Association to advise doctors to maintain young patient's confidentiality when seeking contraception. Three quarters of teenagers visiting Brook Advisory Centre's during the early 70's were doing so without their parent's knowledge.

A survey of Scottish single female students revealed that a third had had sexual intercourse by the age of 18 with over half not using any form of contraception. The survey also showed that 1 in 7 sexually active girls were without a steady boyfriend. "Sexual Behaviour & Contraceptive Practice Among Unmarried Female Undergraduates" (17 Jun 1972) British Medical Journal

The number of teenagers visiting clinics with gonorrhoea reached over 10,000, 60% were girls and 1 in 20 were under 16.

1973: Although the overall teenage birth rate had peaked in 1971, the number occurring to under 16's had continued to rise, reaching a peak of over 1,700. This represented a 55% increase since 1964 and a 250% increase since 1959. The number of schoolgirls who became pregnant also peaked at almost 9,800. The proportion ending in legal abortion had almost doubled since 1969, rising from 24 to 45 percent. The proportion of teenage women who were married also peaked at 11 percent.

1975: Under the new National Health Service reorganisation act contraception was made available free of charge to everyone including single people and those aged under 16. Clarification was given to doctors that they could provide contraception to patients under 16 without parental consent.

With the legalisation of abortion and better availability of contraception, the number of pregnant teenage brides had declined by 37% since 1970.

The teenage birth rate also declined to a rate of 36.4 in 1975. However, the proportion of teenage births occurring outside marriage continued to rise to almost 1 in 3.

The average age of first sexual intercourse had now dropped from 21 in the mid 1950's to 18. Over a quarter of boys under 16 and almost 1 in 8 girls under 16 were now sexually experienced.

1976: The proportion of all illegitimate births occurring to teenagers had more than doubled since the 1950's from 15 to 37%. Whilst the proportion occurring to women over the age of 25 had fallen from 56 to 32% in the same period. However, the proportion of births occurring outside marriage to women of all ages was still only 9%.

With the legalisation of abortion came a drop in the numbers of illegitimate children being adopted from a peak of over 19,000 in 1968 down to almost 9,000. In addition, the number of mother and baby homes had declined by nearly 72% since 1966. Much of it due to the decline in the stigma attached to having a baby outside marriage and an increase in cohabitation among unmarried couples. There was also an increase in the number of never married lone mothers, rising 44% since 1971. With half of all never married lone mothers being under the age of 25.

1977: The DHSS issued advice to doctors that they could perform abortions on girls under 16 without parental consent. Almost 32,000 teenagers had an abortion in Britain during the year.

1978: Brook Advisory Centre's were now government funded.

The 1980s

1981: The numbers of births to girls under 16 fell to their lowest level since 1965. In addition, the numbers of girls under 16 becoming pregnant fell to their lowest level since 1970. Over half of the 8,500 pregnancies resulted in legal abortion.

A third of all women visiting sexual health clinics with gonorrhoea were under 20.

1983: The numbers of births to teenagers had fallen by a third since 1971 to over 54,000, a rate of almost 27 in every thousand. The proportion occurring outside marriage had risen to 56 percent.

Cuts in health service expenditure forced the closure of many family planning clinics and a restriction in the services available to young people.

1984: In a high court ruling in favour of Victoria Gillick it was deemed illegal for health professionals to advise or give girls under 16 contraceptives without parental consent except in exceptional circumstances.

1985: The House of Lords overturned the high court ruling and confidential contraceptive advice to young people was restored.

1986: The proportion of teenage women who were married had fallen from a peak of 11% in 1973 to just over 3%. The numbers of births to teenager began to increase, with the proportion of teenage births occurring outside marriage continuing to increase to 69%, almost a third of which were living at the same address at the time of the birth. The proportion of birth occurring outside marriage to women of all ages was just over 1 in 5, with almost half living at the same address.

The Teenage birth rate in Scotland had followed the same pattern to that of England and Wales. It had fallen from a peak rate of 47.5 in 1971 to 30.5 in 1981 before rising to 30.8 per 1000, with 66% of them occurring outside marriage.

The number of girls under 16 visiting family planning clinics reached over 15,000, the number having almost doubled since 1975.

The 1990s

1990: The number of girls under 16 who became pregnant fell to 8,100, though the rate reached an all time high of 9.5 in every thousand girls, eclipsing the previous highest rate in the early 1970s. Half of all the 8,100 pregnancies ended in legal abortion. The number of under 16's giving birth had risen 10% since 1981.

1991: In the first sex survey of its kind. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) revealed that 1 in 6 girls under 16 and a quarter of boys under 16 were sexually experienced.

A Survey revealed that a fifth of 16-17 year olds and over half of 18-19 year olds were using at least one method of contraception.

1992: The Conservative Party set out a target to reduce the rate of under age pregnancies by 50% by the year 2000..

1996: The number of pregnancies to under 16's increased 10% over 1995, to over 8,800. The sharp increase was put down to a contraceptive pill scare at the end of 1995.

The number of births to all teenagers continued to fall from 54,000 in 1983 to almost 45,000, a rate of almost 30 in every thousand. The proportion occurring outside marriage was almost 89% compared to 36% for women of all ages. Though the number of births to under 16's increased to over 1,600, their highest level since the early 70's.

There was over 10,000 new cases of gonorrhoea to teenagers reported in sexual health clinics up over 30% from 1995 and over 7,000 new cases of Chlamydia to teenagers up over 16% from 1995.

1997: A study revealed that there was a north and south divide in the rate of pregnancies to under 18's. With the highest rates and proportion leading to maternity being in the north of Britain and the lowest rates with the highest proportion leading to abortion, being in the south, with London being the exception having both high rates of pregnancy and abortion.

1999: The Labour Party set out a target to half the number of pregnancies to under 18's by the year 2010. The under-18 pregnancy rate was 42 in every thousand, with 43% ending in legal abortion.

The 2000s

2001: The second NATSAL showed that the average age of first intercourse had dropped from 17 in the 1980's to 16. It also revealed that a quarter of girls and nearly a third of boys were sexually experienced before the age of 16.

The Census showed that half of all teenagers with children were lone parents, 40% were cohabitating as a couple and 10% were married.

2002: A report found that around half of all pregnancies to under 18s was concentrated among the 30% most deprived population. With only 14% occurring among the 30% least deprived. Also that the most deprived areas had higher proportions of pregnancies leading to a maternity.

2005: There was 45,000 teenage births with 92% being outside marriage. The teenage birth rate of 26.3 was at its lowest level for fifty years. The proportion of all births outside marriage occurring to teenagers had fallen from over a third in the mid 1970s to around 15%, a similar proportion to that in the early 1950s. The numbers of births to under 16 had fallen since the mid 1990s to almost 1,200.

Over 7,900 girls under 16 became pregnant, a rate of 7.8 in every thousand, its lowest level for over 20 years. 57% of the pregnancies ending in legal abortion.

The number of new cases of gonorrhoea reported at sexual health clinics occurring to teenagers had fallen since 1970s from over 10,000 to 3,700. Levels of chlamydia had risen throughout the 1980s and 1990s and was now the most common sexually transmitted infection amongst teenagers with over 30,000 new cases reported, almost 28% of all new cases.

2006: Mother of two teenage daughters, Sue Axon lost her battle in the high court to try and prevent under age girls from seeking an abortion without their parents permission. Figures revealed that there was 4,352 abortions in England, Wales & Scotland to under 16's. Up 5% on 2005.

Latest figures revealed that underage conception rate in England & Wales was down from the previous year and down 13% since 1998. Almost 60% of the 7,800 under age conceptions ended in legal abortion, the proportion up 2% on 2005 and highest proportion since conceptions statistics began in 1969.

The numbers of girls under 16 visiting family planning clinics had risen throughout the 1990s to peak at over 91,000 in 2003, before falling to 83,000. The most popular choice being the condom with over half choosing this method of contraceptive.

A screening programme of young people by the Department of Health revealed that 12% of girls aged 16-19 and 13% of men aged 20-24 were infected with the STI Chlamydia.

The numbers of teenage births in Scotland had fallen from 5,500 (28.3 per 1000) in 1991 to 4,100 a rate of 25.8 per 1000, with 97% occurring outside marriage.


Teenage Births in England & Wales (Numbers & Rates)

Year Under 20 Under 16
Numbers Rate per 1000 women aged 15-19 % Outside Marriage
1955 33,000 23.5 16.7 200
1959 46,000 31.6 17.2 500
1964 76,000 42.5 22.5 1,100
1969 82,000 49.6 26.3 1,500
1971 83,000 50.6 25.8 1,500
1973 73,000 43.9 28.0 1,700
1981 57,000 28.1 46.5 1,200
1983 54,000 26.9 56.1 1,300
1990 56,000 33.3 80.3 1,300
1996 45,000 29.7 88.0 1,600
2005 45,000 26.3 91.8 1,200
2006 45,500 26.6 93.0 1,200

Pregnancies To Under 16s By Government Office Region Of England & Wales: 2003-2005

Region Pregnancies
Numbers Rate per 1000 women aged 13-15
North East 1460 7.7
North West 3425 8.3
Yorkshire & Humber 2650 8.9
East Midlands 1861 7.4
West Midlands 2762 8.6
East 1872 6.0
London 3435 9.1
South East 2900 6.2
South West 1836 6.5
Wales 1355 7.8

External links

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