« Infield fly | Main | No, killing people is the real crime »

May 29, 2005

Life's a bitch for the eternal fatalist

I'm not sure how much if any press the case of Julie Atkins has received in North America, but it has caused quite a row in the UK. This woman has three daughters, combined age of 42, who have all recently had babies. This has sent the British press, population and political class into a tizzy, as well it might — they have begun with the ubiquitous fallacy that one extreme case is necessarily indicative of a widespread phenomenon and are now attempting to march against that phenomenon while dancing around the many road apples along the way: issues of class, issues of income, and issues of intelligence.

If teenage pregnancies are a problem, then the UK has it. In England and Wales in 2002, 42.8 out of 1,000 "women" aged 15-17 became pregnant. That's the highest rate in Europe, nearly double the US rate of 23.2 and nearly two-and-a-half times the Canadian rate of 18.1. Beverly Hughes, the UK's Minister of State, Department for Education and Skills, called the Atkins' girls "a tragic loss of opportunity."

That's standard political rhetoric, but upon reading it my reaction was the same as Madeleine Bunting's in her excellent column in Friday's Guardian: 19 times out of 20, a girl who has a baby at 12 had no opportunities to begin with. This is not a politically correct thing to say. Politicians delight in delivering speeches that portray each child under his jurisdiction, no matter what his background, as a perfectly level tablespoon of potential. (This is, I think, the source of this baffling crusade against "child poverty," which asks us conceptually to separate a five-year-old's economic circumstances from his parents'.) In that vein, Bunting quotes part of this rather glaring conflation of cause and effect from a 2001 UNICEF report:

But why should teenage birth rates be a matter of such concern? Physiologically, 18 or 19 is a better age to begin childbearing than 35... And the number of births to teenagers is, in any case, falling steeply across the industrialized world. So why worry?

The answer is of course that teenage births are today seen as a problem. [Look kids, there's Big Ben. And there's Parliament! –ed.] And they are seen as a problem because they are strongly associated with a range of disadvantages for the mother, for the child, for society in general, and for taxpayers in particular.

Specifically, giving birth as a teenager is believed to be bad for the young mother because the statistics suggest that it she is more likely to drop out of school, to have no or low qualifications, to be unemployed or low-paid, to live in poor housing conditions, to suffer from depression, and to live on welfare. Similarly, the child of a teenage mother is more likely to live in poverty, to grow up without a father, to become a victim of neglect or abuse, to do less well at school, to become involved in crime, to abuse drugs and alcohol, and eventually to become a teenage parent and begin the cycle all over again.

This isn't wrong, strictly speaking, as the language is very well chosen — these societal ills are associated with teenage pregnancy, rather than caused by them; a teenage mother is not necessarily more likely to drop out of school because of her pregnancy, but this is what is believed — not wrong, then, but ridiculous. Who cares if poor housing conditions are associated with teenage pregnancy? Who cares what Daily Mail readers believe teenage pregnancy does to young women? The goal here is to improve people's lives, unless I'm misunderstanding, so why attack the symptoms when the causes are as clear as the nose on Tony Blair's face?

Here's Bunting:

...what some of the most respected experts in the field — Professor John Ermisch at the institute of social and economic research at Essex University and Dr Roger Ingham, director of the centre of sexual health at Southampton University — have found is that if you compare teenage mothers with other girls with similarly deprived social-economic profiles, bad school experiences and low educational aspirations, the difference in their respective life chances is negligible.

This idea, that poor socio-economic conditions result in more teenage pregnancies than rich ones, should be far less of a conceptual leap than the opposite and more common idea, that teenage pregnancy is the harbinger of a precipitous fall-off in socio-economic conditions. Think about it: even among privileged, urban 17-year-olds who attend prim and proper private schools, a few will get pregnant. Pregnancy won't make them stupider or less qualified, nor will it decrease the property values where they live. Nothing will happen to them, in fact, that isn't actively inflicted upon them by themselves or by those who support them. If a parent kicks his pregnant 17-year-old daughter out of the house, the consequences are his fault; if the daughter turns to drugs and alcohol and crime, the consequences are her fault.

And, of course, no woman in the world will get pregnant if she doesn't have sex. This sort of statistics-based fatalism denies the importance of personal choices and personal responsibility, and can only result in bad policy. You hear it all the time: "you have a one in X chance of being struck by lightning" is the classic example. But do I? Really? What if I never go out in the rain? It's pretty bloody simple: stupidity breeds poverty, poverty breeds stupidity, and poverty breeds poverty. There are smart people who are poor, of course, and rich people who are stupid, but these are not special cases, just statistical (i.e., meaningless) anomalies: the stupid rich guy is just as much a product of his circumstances and his choices as the stupid poor guy. Denying that, and trying to form policy to benefit a non-existent statistical compilation instead of real individual people, is (to borrow a phrase) like trying to catch water in a net.

In the end, I couldn't possibly phrase it any better than Bunting does: "The government might, quite rightly, want to tackle entrenched inter-generational cycles of poverty, but the key to that is educational aspiration; teenage pregnancy is only a consequence of its absence." And, of course, of a sperm fertilizing an egg.

Posted by Chris Selley at May 29, 2005 03:26 PM