Monday, June 19, 2006

The Ostrich position

Well, who’d have thought that a doctor speaking at an obscure medical conference in Prague could provoke such a storm? Dr Laurence Shaw, deputy medical director of the Bridge Centre fertility clinic, told the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology:
"Before we condemn our teenagers for having sex behind the bike sheds and becoming pregnant, we should remember that this is a natural response by these girls to their rising fertility levels.

"Society may 'tut, tut' about them, but their actions are part of an evolutionary process that goes back nearly two million years; whilst their behaviour may not fit with western society's expectations, it is perhaps useful to consider it in the wider context."
Pretty straightforward, really: puberty triggers hormones that ensure people are strongly inclined to co-operate with nature’s chosen means of continuing the species. Is that controversial? Apparently so:
Shona Robison, the SNP's health spokeswoman, whose constituency in Dundee has rates of teenage pregnancy far exceeding the national average, called the remarks "flippant". "Maybe he should reflect on the effects of teenage pregnancy," she said. "In representing Dundee, I am well aware of the problems teenage pregnancy can cause girls. For many it leads to a life of poverty and a loss of opportunity. I doubt these are the things he would want for his own daughters."

Teresa Smith, chair of the Scottish Christian People's Alliance, said the comments were "completely outrageous". "Many things are an occurrence within nature but it does not mean they are the right thing to do," she said. "Girls of that age are not mature enough to bring up a baby. If they choose to have an abortion, there are long-term effects.

"Teenagers having sexual activity risk catching chlamydia and causing fertility problems. We should be promoting abstinence, not telling young people this is natural."
Well, isn’t an occurrence within nature by definition natural – unless it’s some kind of freak aberration? (Somehow that doesn’t seem likely in this particular case). Is it healthy or morally acceptable to tell young people that sex is dangerous, and babies destroy your life? And why does Shona Robison feel so het-up that she makes an offensively irrational reference to Dr Shaw’s daughters?

Before we are sent a barrage of comments written in capitals with triple punctuation marks, let’s make it quite clear that neither we, nor Dr Shaw, are saying that it’s desirable for someone to have a baby before their emotional maturity has caught up with their physical development, when they don’t have a stable relationship, and when they risk scuppering their own choices in life.

Dr Shaw merely states a biological fact and, being a doctor rather than a politician of some kind, the poor man didn’t realise that putting ‘teenager’ and ‘sex’ in the same sentence is enough to get any messenger shot here in the UK – the teenage pregnancy capital of Western Europe.

We’ve been doing hysteria and the “cover your ears, Matilda!” number for years, and it simply hasn’t worked. (Those pesky facts again). Rather than pretending that teenage sex is a dysfunction akin to stabbing someone or smoking crack, it may prove rather more effective to accept the useful reminder about the role of hormones in young peoples’ lives, the better to engage in some rational, grown-up thought about how we help them to cope with the confusing messages they trigger.

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