Against ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ on teen pregnancyMarch 4, 2009 at 10:01 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 6 Comments
We’ll begin, as is the vogue when writing about this topic, with some of those tiresome anedotes which somehow prove the observations which follow.
Back when I was still lugging crates of cheap pop around a newsagents in Meadowhall, I worked with a girl named Claire*. Claire was sexually active well before the age of consent, was pregnant by the age of sixteen and had only a handful of GCSEs to her name. So far, so ‘Shameless ‘. Except, as soon as her maternity leave was up, Claire returned to work whatever hours she could manage whilst still looking after her newborn. Some two years after giving birth, she enrolled on a part-time hairdressing course, which she squeezed-in between her paid work and all the hours where she simply had to be a mum. She finally qualified last year and, last I heard, was working in a hair salon with dreams of one day opening her own.
There’s another girl I know called Lucy*. Like Claire, Lucy was a teenager when she had her first child, and at first all the work she could manage were a few afternoons in a nearby off license. She held various other menial jobs in the child’s infancy, but when it reached school age, she eventually found some full-time work with the local council . Now she’s taking extra courses to make up for the work she missed at school, and she’ll probably be a line manager before she hits 40.
So what profound insights can be gleaned from these brief summations of two single mothers’ lives? Only that no matter what your age when you give birth, no matter what your qualifications, your economic background, or even how high your aspirations, the lives of these women rarely end at conception . Many of the young girls whose unintended pregnancies cause despair to tabloids and politicians alike will go on to produce better lives for themselves and their kids than anyone will ever notice, much less give credit for.
Now, Tom Harris has a completely different set of anecdotes and uses them to draw a different (and much bleaker) conclusion about single mothers. We’re both partially right, of course, but it’s the enormity of what we exclude which, in the end, makes us both fundamentally wrong.
Human life is messy and complicated; it can be constrained by factors beyond our control and hamstrung by both our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. There are some single mothers whose lives will mirror my anecdotes, and there are some whose lives are blighted by the low ambition and poor self-esteem described by the member for Glasgow South. There are many, many more whose lives resemble neither of our simplistic charicatures, and of those there are more quiet triumphs than there are glaring, headline-grabbing tragedies.
But what disturbs me about Mr Harris’ post is the ease with which this breadth of human experience can somehow be boiled-down into the biblical absolutes of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Now, as a member of Parliament, it is sometimes Mr Harris’ job to make these judgements (is it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to invade a foreign country? is it ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to lock someone up for six weeks without charge?), but this is one of those issues where such thinking achieves precisely nothing.
No, the choice isn’t between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but between ‘what is’ and ‘what could be’? How do we stop boys from impregnating? What are the right ways of encouraging young boys & girls to stop wasting their potential? How do we ensure that those women who don’t believe their lives should end at conception will have the educational and employment opportunities to achieve their delayed ambitions? And are we intervening early enough, often enough and rigorously enough in a child’s life to ensure they don’t fall into the same traps as generations past?
Identifying what is and then pondering what could be gets you far closer to untangling the many threads of teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, unemployment and social mobility, and brings you nearer to finding those policies which might achieve your goals. By contrast, the most you’ll achieve by simplistically declaring things either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a spot on a radio phone-in, a column in a tabloid newspaper, or at best, a seat on the backbenches. Nobody should have to settle for that.
*Names altered, for obvious reasons.