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Teenage pregnancy and choice: an exploration of the factors which influence young women to continue with their pregnancies or terminate them

Overview

Abstract

Over the last decade teenage pregnancy has been regarded as an increasingly pressing problem for government. This project is seeking to gather the views of young women between the ages of 13 and 24 in order to build on our understanding of debates about teenage pregnancy, by exploring the issues surrounding it with young women themselves, specifically to look at the relationship between the decision to continue or abort a pregnancy and the transition to adulthood. The research is being conducted in Doncaster, which has a high rate of under sixteen conception.

Press coverage

Disclaimer: The following news articles, from today's press, do not necessarily reflect the views of SATSU, The Joseph Rowntree Fund or the findings of the Teenage Pregnancy Research.

Coverage of the findings of the Teenage Pregnancy project has been widespread. Dr Sharon Tabberer, the researcher in charge of the project, completed 19 Radio interviews between 7 and 9am this morning (Wed 15th Nov 2000).

Just some of the coverage can be found by moving through the tabs.

Research Staff

Sharon Tabberer, Dr Christine Hall, Professor Andrew Webster, Dr Shirley Prendergast

Contact

Sharon Tabberer, Research Fellow, SATSU. Timeframe: 1998-1999

Funding source

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Findings

What influences teenagers’ decisions about unplanned pregnancy?

Young women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy are faced with a decision that can affect the rest of their life, yet little is known about what influences this decision. This qualitative study looks in-depth at this decision-making period. Through interviews with 41 young women who had decided either to continue with their pregnancy or to have an abortion, focus groups within the wider community and interviews with parents, the researchers looked at the impact of social, economic and cultural factors on the decision taken. They found:  

  • Decisions about continuing with or ending an unplanned teenage pregnancy were shaped by a range of factors including the prevalence and visibility of teenage motherhood within the local area and community-wide views on the unacceptability of abortion.
  • Decisions were firmed up during the 7-14 week period after the discovery of the pregnancy. During this period, sources of impartial advice for pregnant teenagers were few.
  • The range and sort of advice the young woman received and her expectations of family support after the birth were crucial to any decision made. Among the young mothers, abortion had not generally been considered as an option. Where abortion was considered this was in response to range of factors, including the personal circumstances of the young woman and her knowledge of others who had made a similar decision.
  • After the decision to continue with a pregnancy, families - and especially young women’s own mothers - often proved crucial in integrating the young mother and child into ordinary family life.
  • Many young mothers found themselves reliant upon their family of origin; there was no evidence that young women deliberately became pregnant to secure economic independence.

Introduction

Over the last decade, teenage pregnancy has been regarded as an increasingly pressing problem for government culminating in recent pledges to halve the rate of teenage conceptions within ten years. This is to be achieved via a series of national and local initiatives that aim first, to prevent teenage conceptions and second, to offer support to young mothers to minimise any disadvantage that early motherhood might bring.

However, these policies do not address the intermediate period during which a young woman decides either to continue with a pregnancy or to have an abortion. This is no doubt due, at least in part, to the considerable political, ethical, cultural and religious sensitivities surrounding these issues. But it also due to a real lack of knowledge about this crucial time of decision-making in young women's lives.

This research focused on this intermediate period of decision-making, examining the complex factors that shape decisions, reflecting social beliefs, attitudes towards parenting, adulthood and sexuality, and formal sources of advice and counselling.  

Making the decision

Almost all of the women interviewed had not planned to become pregnant and had been shocked at finding themselves pregnant. For a few, confirming the pregnancy had been a difficult period, taking place in some instances over some months as they went through a series of pregnancy tests from a variety of agencies and sought to understand the changes taking place in their bodies.

Once the pregnancy had been confirmed, young women often had to take the decision about whether or not to continue with the pregnancy very quickly to fit in the time limits on abortion. Time was particularly short for those who had not realised they were pregnant until four or five months has passed, either because of false negative pregnancy tests or an unwillingness to face up to the situation they found themselves in. In making the decision they might or might not have the support of others, such as parents or boyfriends.  Perhaps unsurprisingly in light of the time available, their own pre-existing views and the experiences of those surrounding them were a primary influence on the young women. In the area studied, anti-abortion views were quite prevalent and families had generally not discussed abortion as an option for pregnant young women. In contrast, young motherhood was highly visible and had been discussed within families before it became a particular issue for them.

For those who did choose abortion, an important influence was having known someone who had made this decision or who was willing to offer advice.

“I went to see a woman who lives across road from me stepmum, and she were telling me she were pregnant when she were fifteen and she had an abortion, she said that it hurt her, but it were for best reasons.”  (Sally)

Some felt that their own circumstances were exceptional enough to make abortion an option despite their more general anti-abortion views.

“ 'Cos I've never ever really thought of me doing something like this, not at all ... not at all.  But I've got myself into the situation where I really needed to really help myself cope with what I've already got.” (Diane)

Parents of young women who had chosen to continue with their pregnancies had often been reluctant to give specific advice about which decision to make, preferring to offer general support. However, this offer of support could have an implicit effect on the decision made with young women feeling re-assured that they would not be on their own.

If my Mum and Dad said they wouldn’t support me I think that would have changed my mind, because I wouldn’t have been able to afford to look after her. (Leone)

Boyfriends could also be instrumental in shaping the decision if they’d held or had previously expressed strong views on the topic. However, young men were often happy to let their girlfriend take the decision alone or in association with her parents. In some situations, this could make it very hard for the young woman to choose, as she tried to work out the views of others and to make the ‘right’ decision.

His parents lived at the house, he told his parents, and they sat there constantly the whole 3-4 weeks that I sat there deciding what to do about Ben, they said if you get rid of that child you are murdering my grandchild. (Belinda).

Other young women saw boyfriends as peripheral to both the decision to continue with the pregnancy and to any ongoing support, either because they did not think the relationship was as important as the forthcoming baby or because they already knew they would have support from their parents.

To me, men have some say but not a lot really, they think they've got a big say in it but, they haven't really, not really......(Diane).

The involvement of families

The children of young mothers were very quickly included into the extended family.  Parents - and especially, but not exclusively, mothers - were very important in integrating the new baby into broader family life. This was most clear where young women continued to live with their parents, during the pregnancy and after the birth of the child. In some cases, the boyfriend moved into the young woman’s family home. But young women who had their own homes and appeared to be outwardly independent could still be very reliant on their family.  

“I’ve got my own house and I live with the father, the baby’s dad.  I’m still dependent on my Mum.  She picks me and my son up in the morning and takes him to Gavin’s mum, so that she has him while I’m at work.  So I’m still very dependent on her.  She takes me shopping and everything.” (Fiona)

Young women could be ambivalent about family support. On the one hand, they welcomed support and in many cases the pregnancy may not have proceeded without it. On the other hand, they could find the continued dependence on their family restrictive. For some young people, becoming a parent did not represent a move away from the family but a reintegration within it, at a point in time when their peers were forming their own identities outside the home.

This suggests that teenage motherhood may not be an automatic route into adulthood, but rather it forms part of an extended transitional process: the young woman gradually learns to take responsibility for her child while her family seeks an appropriate level of support which might eventually lead to her to reduce her reliance on them.

The interviews found no evidence that young women had deliberately become pregnant to gain more economic independence. For those young mothers who had already left home before they had their babies a level of independence was already established. Their pregnancy was more likely to be accepted by others and they were more likely to be treated as adults by their own family.

Young women who elected to have an abortion went through a similar process of decision-making.  Parents, especially mothers, offered support and, for some, their advice was important in making the decision.

She didn't really say anything, she just said, whatever your decision, I'm here for you, I'll stand by you, she said "I'm not going to say anything, so I don't want you to think I'm forcing you but before you make a decision just think about, you know, like, (paying for) your horses, whatever".(Rose)  

However, these young women also had to deal with the views of their wider community. For some young women their decision not to continue with their pregnancy had resulted in isolation from their peers and in some cases open hostility.

I told this woman I knew who I worked with and she turned round and called me a murderer. (Lucy).

Discussion in the focus groups between young non-pregnant women illustrated the views of the wider community.

“What would happen if everyone knew at school that somebody had had an abortion?” “You wouldn't be able to go to school.” “You'd get called [names]. You'd probably get hit an’ all wouldn't you.”

Conclusions This research suggests that the decision whether or not to continue with a pregnancy is not an isolated one but is influenced by beliefs held before pregnancy and discussions after conception is confirmed.

This suggests that, to enable young women to make an informed choice, more information is needed about abortion and early motherhood before they are in the position of having to make this decision. This information could be part of sex and relationship education within schools.

There is also a possible opportunity for independent counselling/advice and decision-making support during the early period of the pregnancy. Counselling/advice during this period should be particularly attentive to the likely sources of existing influence relating to wider beliefs, the nature of relationships, the circumstances in which the pregnancy originated, and the involvement of the broader family. But it also needs to recognise that the young woman may need support if her decision goes against the expectations of the wider community.

About the study

The fieldwork for the project was undertaken in Doncaster, chosen because of high levels of teenage pregnancy in a context of broad social deprivation.  Research was carried out with 41 young women aged who had made the decision either to continue with their pregnancy or to have an abortion whilst aged 18 or under. In order to examine the views on abortion and motherhood in the wider community, focus groups were also held with young women who were not pregnant and young men who were not fathers. In addition, a group of parents were interviewed individually. The research took place between 1997 and 1999.

How to get further information

The full report, Teenage pregnancy and choice: Abortion or motherhood: influences on the decision by Sharon Tabberer, Christine Hall, Andrew Webster and Shirley Prendergast, is published for the Foundation by YPS (ISBN 1 902633 xx x, price £xx.xx).

It is available from York Publishing Services Ltd, 64 Hallfield Road, Layerthorpe, York YO31 7ZQ, Tel: 01904 430033, Fax: 01904 430868, email: orders@yps.ymn.co.uk. 

Please add £2.00 p&p per order.

Press release

University press release

Embargo: for publication after 00.01hrs Wednesday 15th Nov. 2000

Teenage mothers ‘strongly influenced by anti-abortion views in local community’  

Your friends talk about pregnancy and abortion…and what you'd do…but I've never known anyone to be pregnant and have an abortion.

Young woman interviewed in Doncaster.

Opposition to abortion among families and the local community are among the important factors that shape teenagers’ decisions to continue with unplanned pregnancies. The ‘visibility’ of young mothers and babies in neighbourhoods with high levels of teenage pregnancy is another major influence, according to research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The study – carried out in Doncaster where teenage pregnancy rates are among the highest in Britain – suggests that those who become young mothers do not generally consider abortion as an option. But it also finds that teenagers have few sources of impartial advice during the crucial 7 to 14 weeks after pregnancy is confirmed.

The ‘qualitative’ research combined in-depth interviews with 41 young women who had either decided to continue with a pregnancy or seek an abortion with focus groups with other young people and parents. It found that:  

Almost all the teenagers had been shocked to discover they were pregnant. There was no evidence that any of them had deliberately become pregnant to secure economic independence or housing. By the time their pregnancy had been confirmed, young women often had only a few weeks to decide whether to continue or seek an abortionYoung women were primarily influenced by their own, pre-existing views and the attitudes and experiences of those around them. Anti-abortion views were quite prevalent in the study area and families had generally not discussed abortion as an option, Young motherhood was highly visible in the locality, with the result that young women and their families had often discussed teenage pregnancy before it became an issue for them. Boyfriends were sometimes influential in shaping the decision if they held strong views. However, many young fathers appeared to have let their girlfriends take the decision alone, or with their parents. For the few who had chosen abortion, knowing someone who had made the same decision, or was willing to offer advice had been an important influence. Families, especially the young women’s own mothers, often played a crucial part in supporting teenagers who gave birth and in ensuring that mother and baby became an accepted part of the extended family.

Sharon Tabberer, a Research Fellow at the University of York, and co-author of the study, said:

Our research suggests that information about abortion and early motherhood should be made more available so that young women are better informed. It also identifies a need for independent counselling, advice and support for teenagers from the time they first suspect they are pregnant. We welcome the steps that the government’s Teenage Pregnancy Unit and the pilot Sure Start Plus programme are taking along these lines.

She added:  

Continuing support should be available whatever young women decide, but not least if their choice goes against expectation s in the wider community.
Note to Editors

Teenage pregnancy and choice: Abortion of motherhood: influences on the decision by Sharon Tabberer, Christine Hall, Andrew Webster and Shirley Prendergast is published for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by York Publishing Services, 64 Hallfield Road, Layerthorpe, York YO31 7ZQ (01904 4300033) price £12.95 plus £2.00 p&p. A summary of findings from the report is available, free of charge, from JRF, The Homestead, 40 Water End, York YO30 6WP or from www.jrf.org.uk

For further information, contact:

Sharon Tabberer (author)     01904 434742
David Utting, (JRF Head of Media Relations) 020-7278 9665

Guardian

The Guardian

Moral minors
What do teenagers really think about pregnancy and abortion? A new survey suggests that they are far less feckless than we are led to believe, report Esther Addley and Crystal Mahey

Esther Addley and Crystal Mahey
Guardian

Thursday November 16, 2000

"Teenagers should not allow themselves to get into situations where they even need to consider having an abortion. The only time it is right to have a child is in a stable relationship, when
you can support your child both financially and emotionally. Unless you are at that stage, you should be careful and not get yourself pregnant. Otherwise you are just being irresponsible and selfish."

Are these the words of a right-wing leader writer? Or a pro-life organisation spokesperson? You would be wrong to assume either was the right answer. This is the opinion of Victoria, a
14-year-old schoolgirl from London. Teenagers are not meant to talk like this, at least not according to the well-rehearsed national debate over teenage pregnancy. Even adults prepared
to credit teenagers with maturity in taking decisions about reproduction may assume that school-aged sex is free and easy, and the possibility of creating life considered in a cavalier fashion, if it is considered at all.

So the findings of a new study published this week will come as a surprise to many. The survey, by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, talked to 41 young women in Doncaster who had
become pregnant at a young age and, in the vast majority of cases, continued with the pregnancy to full term. It found that almost all had been shocked to discover they were pregnant.
They were not trying to please their boyfriends, and most took the decision on whether or not to keep their baby without much reference to the child's father.

Most tellingly, they were far from irresponsible. In fact, the teenagers were so convinced of the need to take responsibility for their own actions that terminating the pregnancy was not an
option considered. Getting pregnant may be frowned upon by the moral majority, but even the report's authors confessed to surprise at the force of moral disapproval displayed by girls
towards their peers who had had abortions.

What would happen if everyone at school knew that someone had had an abortion? "You wouldn't be able to go to school," replied one girl. "You would get called names. You would
probably get hit and all."

One teenager, Lucy, had decided not to continue with a pregnancy. "I told this woman I knew who I worked with and she turned round and called me a murderer."

The strength of feeling against abortion on the Doncaster housing estates where these women were interviewed surprised Sharon Tabberer, one of the researchers. "They said it was
nothing to do with religion, but that it was 'wrong'. It just wasn't something that people like them did."

"What is so interesting is this incredible difference when it comes to social groups and abortion," says Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association. "Middle-class girls, we know, are less likely to get pregnant than less well-off girls, but they are also much more likely to have abortions. The two groups just don't have the same sort of views.

"It is interesting that in a group of young women who have less control over their lives than other young women, that is being reinforced by the fact that they feel abortion is not an option for them either."

So how did we get to the point where only well-off, well-educated girls tend to consider termination? Education on family planning and sexual health simply tries to sweep abortion under the carpet, argues Weyman. "There has been a real reluctance to consider that abortion is an important option for young women, and to make sure that it is offered to them. Everything is about prevention - which is good - and support for new parents - also good - but there is nothing about the choice you can make in the middle of these two options."

She points out that government guidelines on sex education have not, until this year, included a recommendation that girls be given advice on terminations. The DfEE's advice, published in
June, tentatively suggested that "young people need to be aware of the moral and personal dilemmas involved in abortion and know how to access a relevant agency if necessary".

By "relevant agency" it may be assumed that the department means impartial advice on termination - but even couched in such language the recommendation attracted howls of protest
from the pro-life lobby.

There is little doubt that the Doncaster study teenagers are aware of the troubled morality involved in abortion. "It was about taking responsibility for their actions," says Tabberer. "They said things like: 'It was me who made the mistake and why should the baby have to suffer? I didn't use protection, it's not the baby's fault.'"

James is 19 and already the father of a one-year-old son. While he does regret his role in the pregnancy, he is convinced of the importance of taking responsibility for creating a life. "It
happened, and now I have a responsibility to my child. It is difficult trying to bring up a baby on my own, they are expensive and it limits the things I can do in my life. But it is not me that is important any more, my child is my priority."

"In this country we have a very censorious view about the unwanted consequences of sexual activity," says Weyman. "It makes young people believe that, well, I've had sex, so I have to
live with the outcome. It's a lack of being able to say, well I do have a choice."

For teenagers who do decide to have an abortion, the decision is tough, argues 16-year-old Aisha. "When I realised I was pregnant, I just cried and cried and cried. It's like, when you're
young, you dream about having children and being with someone you love, and all that is taken from you in 10 minutes and a pregnancy test."

Aisha lives in London and is at college taking A-levels. "Having an abortion was the hardest thing I have ever had to deal with, and I don't think there can ever be anything worse. Some people are like, how can anyone kill their child? That's how I felt about myself, afterwards, but it wasn't like that. I'm 16, I couldn't support a little child financially, and I wasn't ready emotionally. How could I bring a life into this world when I knew it would suffer."

Aisha explains that her background made the decision even more difficult for her. "For any daughter to tell her parents she is 15 and pregnant is hard. But when your parents follow traditional Indian beliefs and are obsessed with keeping the family name respectful ... at least some people have their families support when they have abortions, I had nothing."

Teenagers reject abortion
John Carvel, social affairs editor
Guardian

Wednesday November 15, 2000

Family pressures and inadequate sex education stop most pregnant teenagers from even considering the possibility of an abortion, according to a report today from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

As the government wrestles with policies to reduce the highest rate of teenage births in western Europe, researchers from York university found a lack of support for young women having to make quick decisions when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.

They interviewed 41 young women in Doncaster, a town with one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in England. Almost all were shocked to discover they were pregnant. There was no evidence that any deliberately became pregnant to secure economic independence or housing. By the time pregnancy was confirmed, the women had seven to 14 weeks to decide on an abortion.

They were primarily influenced by attitudes and experiences they had before they became pregnant and by the experiences of those around them.

"Anti-abortion views were prevalent and families had not discussed abortion as an option. In contrast, young motherhood was highly visible and had been discussed within families," the report said.

One young mother reported that her boyfriend's parents said an abortion would amount to "murdering their grandchild". Another said she would have been hit and abused if she returned to school after terminating her pregnancy.

The few who chose abortion said a big influence was knowing someone who had made the same decision. For some the result was isolation from their peers and open hostility. "I told a woman I worked with and she called me a murderer," said one.

Latest figures show almost 90,000 teenagers became pregnant in England in 1997, of whom 56,000 gave birth. Almost 7,700 were under 16, of whom 3,700 gave birth.

The government has set a target of halving the rate of teenage conceptions within 10 years.

Independent

The Independent

Teenage mothers 'talked out of having abortions'
By Ian Burrell, Home Affairs Correspondent

15 November 2000

Abortion is not an option for most pregnant teenagers because families and neighbours in many areas deem it unacceptable, researchers say.

In places with high teenage pregnancy, the girls were discouraged from abortion by the "visibility" of other young expectant mothers and babies. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, out today, said most young mothers "found themselves reliant upon their family of origin". But the researchers said there was "no evidence young women deliberately became pregnant to secure economic dependence".

The report focused on Doncaster, South Yorkshire, which has a high rate of teenage pregnancy. In interviews with 41 young mothers, almost all were "shocked" at finding themselves pregnant. The report said: "In the area studied, anti-abortion views were quite prevalent and families had generally not discussed abortion as an option for pregnant young women."

Some girls said they had been put under great pressure by relatives and members of the community not to terminate the pregnancy. One, called Belinda, said: "His parents lived at the house, he told his parents, and they sat there constantly the whole three to four weeks that I sat there deciding what to do about Ben. They said, 'If you get rid of that child you are murdering our grandchild'."

Other teenagers were worried about how abortion was viewed by their peers. One girl said: "You wouldn't be able to go to school. You'd get called [names]. You'd probably get hit an' all, wouldn't you?"

Although political, cultural, ethical and religious sensitivities affected decisions on teenage pregnancies, the report found there was also a "real lack of knowledge" of the crucial time during pregnancy when decisions must be made.

Schoolchildren needed more information on abortion and motherhood so young women could make informed decisions.

Times

The Times

WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 15 2000
Shame of abortion deters teenagers
BY ELIZABETH JUDGE

THE social stigma surrounding abortion in socially deprived areas is fuelling the rise in teenage motherhood, according to new research.

Many teenagers refuse to have an abortion because they face hostility from friends and risk isolation in their community, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals. The research was carried out in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, which has the seventh highest teenage pregnancy rates in England.

One girl was called a “murderer” and other teenagers said that if their peers found out that they had had an abortion, they would probably be beaten up and would not be able to attend school any more. Those known to have had abortions were often taunted by their friends.

Sharon Tabberer, the report’s author, said: “When girls are faced with a difficult decision like this, it is essential they have advice to
help them, whatever choice they make. Parents can be reluctant to talk about it and it becomes a hidden subject.” Boyfriends offered little help, preferring to let the girl decide for herself.