The case of the decimal place: teenage pregnancy

// 15 February 2010

percent.jpgThe Tories published a report meant to highlight inequalities under Labour, which accidentally overstated the rate of teenage pregnancy among girls in deprived areas by a factor of 10, reports The Guardian.

The actual rate of teen pregnancy is 54.32 per 1000 girls aged 15-17, or 5.4% in the 10 deprived areas referred to by the Tories. But the Conservative party slipped up by a decimal place, instead claiming that 54% of teen girls in these areas become pregnant.

To top it all, in the same 10 deprived areas Labour said that, since 1998, there had been a 10.5% decline in the under-18 conception rate, reversing a previous upward trend.

Moreover, as The Economist noted recently, “Today, only half as many girls between 15 and 19 bear a child in their teens as when their grandmothers were that age.” (Part of an interesting dissection of whether or not Britain is, as Cameron suggests, “broken”: they conclude not. Via Wonderland).

As Cath Elliot points out:

It took others outside of the Conservative Party to point the mistake out to them. It took people with a grasp of sodding reality to read that figure and go: “Hang on, 54%? That can’t be right!” and delve a bit deeper into the stats.

But I wonder how many Tory Party faithful had already checked through the report prior to its publication yesterday; I wonder how many of them had looked at that figure, nodded along, and thought: “54% of ‘em pregnant: yep, sounds about right.” Or alternatively, and probably more realistically, how many of them had read it and muttered to themselves “54% of ‘em. 54% of the feckless sponging hordes spawning kids just so they can get their own council houses and benefits and live in luxury off the rest of us just like their feckless sponging work-shy parents before ‘em”

Comments From You

Elmo // Posted 15 February 2010 at 8:37 pm

eurgh. Just eurgh. The fact that no one checked this, and then assumed it to be right, shows that the Tories (and sadly, lots of other politicians) really have no grasp of reality.

Plus I feel that they are suggesting that all teen mums will be bad parents, who are getting pregnant soley to get benifits, even though 16 and 17 yr olds have a legal right to get pregnant if they so wish. This is not to say teen pregnancy isnt a problem, but you know what I mean. Hopefully

Feminist Avatar // Posted 15 February 2010 at 9:49 pm

Given that my mother was married and gave birth to me at 19, and is still married today to the same man, but would still be counted as a ‘teen’ mother- these statistics need a bit more rigour if we want to assess what they say about social stability. While when looking at the long-duree, age of marriage in Britain today is not far different from broader the historical trends (where age at marriage was late), age of marriage did decline dramatically after the war, peaking in the 1970s. So many of our grandmothers and mothers would have married in their late-teens and early-20s. Yet, this was in no way a reflection of an ‘unstable’ society (if we even believe in such nonsense). In fact, for the Tories it is often pointed to as a golden age.

As Elmo points out, given that women over 16 can perfectly legally give birth and marry, we need to interrogate at what age these ‘teen’ pregnancies actually happen and what is the social consequences for mother and child before we get hysterical.

Weaver // Posted 15 February 2010 at 10:08 pm

It’s totaly mind boggoling that any one could read that statistic and not query it. Shows how much the Tories have no Idea whats going on in the world.

The Guardian had an interesting article on how teen motherhood is not in fact the end of the world

Shea // Posted 15 February 2010 at 10:46 pm

to Feminist Avatar- thats a very interesting point which is almost never made. It isn’t “teenage pregnancy” that is the problem its the view of teengae mothers as feckless scroungers living off the state. But realistically the number of teenage pregnancies must have dropped since 1900s because society has shifted to the view that later marriage and motherhood are optimal. But most of our grandmother and great grandmothers would have been mothers in their teens and early twenties, not least because of the low life expectancy (45 in 1900).

I find it very sad the predictably depressing response to teenage pregnancy. There was a good article on Cif the other day about how it can be an opportunity rather than a disaster. Of course it just gets the usual right wing nuts, moaning about “their taxes” being used to support this. Also there a point to be made that crap sex education in this country aside, we are talking about the optimum age biologically to have a baby. Women are at their most fertile from 15 to 25, is it really that surprising that teenage pregnancy happens so frequently (although obviously not as much as the Tories imagine).

This yet further proof of their incompetency with statistics. I despair at the prospect of them getting into power.

Mrs Carrothead // Posted 16 February 2010 at 12:11 am

…and as if the misinterpretation wasn’t bad enough, Ed Balls has been quoted as saying: “[The Tories] are totally out of touch and have nothing to say on the important issue of reducing teenage pregnancies except smears and distortions. Pregnancies among under-18s in the poorest areas have fallen 10 per cent under Labour, from 60 per 1,000 to 54 per 1,000.”

Yeah. Apart from the fact that a fall of 60/1000 to 54/1000 is a 0.6% not 10% reduction. Firstly, sloppy. Secondly, it seems appalling to me that the government don’t even pay enough attention to notice such misrepresentations even when they’re supposedly correcting the Conservatives! All this says to me is that as ridiculous (and overlooked) the Conservatives’ claims were, Labour can hardly claim to be any better.

Jess McCabe // Posted 16 February 2010 at 10:22 am

@Mrs Carrothead My maths is a bit rusty, but a quick calculation suggests a reduction from 60 to 54 is a 10% reduction.

Julie K // Posted 16 February 2010 at 10:29 am

My maths isn’t the best either, but as far as I can work it out it’s a reduction from 0.6% to 0.54% – so a fall of 0.06%. Am willing to be corrected if I have this wrong!

Still pretty different from a dramatic increase to 54%.

Julie K // Posted 16 February 2010 at 10:30 am

No, I have that wrong (oops). It’s a fall from 6% to 5.4%. Mrs Carrothead is correct.

Jess McCabe // Posted 16 February 2010 at 10:33 am

@Julie K the reduction is from 60 cases per 1000 to 54 cases per 1000. 54 is 90% of 60, therefore there has been a 10% drop in the number of cases per 1000, that’s where they’re getting it from.

Kate // Posted 16 February 2010 at 10:37 am

It is a 10% reduction. 10% fewer teenage girls got pregnant.

I really hope this thread isn’t found by anyone wanting to get mileage out of women supposedly being bad at maths!

Bmu // Posted 16 February 2010 at 10:50 am

Ben Goldacre pointed out for illnesses, that focussing on the relative (6/60) rather than the absolute (0.6) decline is itself really distorting (a drug might make you 25% less likely to have a heart attack, but if that chance is anyway tiny you’re not really much better off).

Balls could have just said there are fewer pregnancies, not all of them are dissaters for the women concerned, that the Labour party actually give a stuff about ensuring they are less disasterous for all, one tiny part of this is ensuring women have better reproductive choices.

But he didn’t, and Balls decision to give relative rather thean absolute figures actually works in the same way as the Tories, it creates the impression of a big problem with a big absolute reduction, not a numerically small and exaggerated problem which need not indicate ‘broken Britain’.

gadgetgal // Posted 16 February 2010 at 11:28 am

@Kate – lol, very much!

Sian // Posted 16 February 2010 at 11:37 am

The whole concept of the so-called broken society has been made up by a bunch of upper-middle-class men having rose-tinted reminiscences of their mothers baking cakes in a pinny. All four of my great-grandmothers were at some point single mothers (on the middle-class side one was widowed and the other-shockingly!-divorced due to her husband’s adultery; on the working-class side both had between 4 and 6 partners/husbands and kids to each one as a mixture of death, divorce and short-term relationships). Both on the working-class side of my family worked, one part-time cleaning, the other owned a newsagents. And the stories I get told about their lives show that life had similar amounts of theft and violence as today. I think the only difference is that the middle-classes live amongst more nowadays (go to state schools, live nearby) and so notice normal life more.

Julie K // Posted 16 February 2010 at 12:09 pm

Yeah, OK, fair enough! But it does show how statistics can be manipulated – a 10% total fall (even though you’re actually only talking about 6 people per 1000) sounds far more impressive than a 0.6% decline in the overall rate.

Of course, there’s a difference between that and downright lies like the Tories’ 54%. And anyway as has been pointed out, the statistics are in themselves fairly meaningless, as there is a huge difference in the situation of a 13-year-old pregnant teenager and a 19-year-old pregnant young woman.

But hey, it’s always nice to see the Tories looking like numpties, especially as the possibility of Torygeddon looms ever nearer.

sianmarie // Posted 16 February 2010 at 1:33 pm

it’s just awful isn’t it! and secnds to everyone who pointed out that historically women were pregnant in their teens. in the tudor era, women were married at 12 and expected to have babies as soon as they started their periods…

the thought that the tories are so out of touch as to have looked at that stat and gone ‘yep about right’ is so shocking, so unbelievably stupid…

and i am sick of this demonising of young mums, young people and young women.

and one more thing – it isn’t like the tories are fully behind plans for better sex ed anyway. so they are in no place to complain about the teen pregnancies that they perceive to be such a disaster to society.

Mrs Carrothead // Posted 16 February 2010 at 4:59 pm

@ Julie K, Jess McCabe etc.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics!

Anne Onne // Posted 16 February 2010 at 8:22 pm

Ugh, how I hate ‘broken Britain’. Particularly the heartfelt plea that the British ‘no longer recognise their once-Great country’ because of X, Y or Z.* Yes, people feel that their country is going through change: it has been ever since molten rock solidified and certainly since people have been living on it! It’s rather daft when people complain that there’s just TOO MUCH change now when Britain’s seen many invasions (for example the Angles, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Romans and the Normans), fought in two world wars and experienced an industrial revolution. I bet the adults 100 years ago were flipping out a hell of a lot more about women being given the right to vote, and steam engines and shocking things like motorcars!

It’s actually hilarious when you read literature from many times in history whining about how society is going to the dogs, and there’s far too much fornication and some terrible fall in moral standards, because people have been saying this since records began.

So whilst it can be good for people to care enough about society to improve it, it really isn’t true that there was some sort of Golden Age when everything was perfect, as I’m sure you’re all aware.

* And if you guessed that X, Y and Z are slutty women and girls, hordes of foreigners stealing our jobs and people who don’t fit the gender/sexuality binary, you get a point. Extra marks if you mention the obesity epidemic or how disabled people are totally ruining the world.

Elmo // Posted 16 February 2010 at 9:30 pm

Anne Onne-yeah, im pretty sure Socrates or somone (definetly an ancient greek philosopher) was complaining about how society was going to the dogs 2000 years ago.

Where are these dogs, and when are they going to get there? I hate that phrase almost as much as I hate “of course, nowadays…”

When exactly was Britain not “broken”? When we didnt have the NHS? When serial killers had better haircuts? When teachers were still allowed to hit children?

Bring on the dogs, I say. Maybe they would eat all the annoying people who think immigration etc is going to cause domesday.

Laurel Dearing // Posted 16 February 2010 at 11:42 pm

@anne onne, you forgot divorce!

Sarah // Posted 17 February 2010 at 9:21 am

I liked the Guardian article too, about how teenage pregnancy can often be a positive thing in a young woman’s life, far from a disaster, and doesn’t necessarily result in poorer outcomes for her (or her child) as people usually assume. The reason given was that the young mother is motivated to ‘turn her life around’ (assuming she’d been having problems before, I suppose) out of the desire to give her child the best possible life. It made me feel a bit sad to think that a girl wouldn’t feel she herself was worth making the effort for, that she deserved a better life for herself. But I guess it’s true at any age that having a child can change our perspective on life.

Also as someone said earlier, it’s perfectly legal and reasonable to have sexual relationships and have a child when you’re aged 16-19. The standard advice (which I’d probably give myself, to be fair) is to wait a little longer. But at the same time, if you know you want children, there’s a lot to be said for having them while you’re young.

It’s an interesting problem, because on the one hand we need to be offering the education and resources for girls and young women to be able to prevent *unwanted* pregnancies, and to deal with them when they do arise. But at the same time not characterising every pregnancy in a younger woman as a disaster, a mistake that should have been prevented, or something that’s going to ruin her life if not terminated.

Aimee // Posted 17 February 2010 at 12:19 pm

This is digusting. Ugh I hate the Torys. I also hate the way teenage pregnancy is instantly assumed to be a bad thing! What about the teenagers who WANT to have a baby? Or people like me. I was a teenaged parent… and I think i’m a good parent! I am also at university. My child is well cared for an intelligent, but i have to bear the stigma ‘cos it’s considered so awful. These stereotypes are nothing but harmful becase it encourages teenaged parents not only to consider themselves as inferior, but it also bars them from services avaliable to parents, purely because of shame. If they wanted to make sure the children of teenaged parents grew up happy and healthy, they’d stop disdaining the parents and start encouraging and supporting them and making it easier for them to get jobs, get childcare, go to university etc.

A J // Posted 17 February 2010 at 11:45 pm

@ Julie K

Oh dear, you’re now reminding me of being at school and attempting to work out percentage changes in, er, percentages for some chemistry experiment – and slowly feeling my brain turn to mush ;) (never to recover, I guess)

The worst thing about the ‘broken Britain’ narrative, aside from its irresponsibility and blatent falsity, is that I don’t even really think that David Cameron actually believes it himself. He’s too smart for that. But it’s the perfect slogan to net the Daily Mail readers, and delight the hardcore Tories, and I guess they think thats enough. Which is probably even more cynical than the alternative.

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