UK teenage pregnancy reduction unlikely until policy makers adopt ‘evolutionary approach’

Attempts to reduce the high rate of teenage pregnancy and motherhood in the UK, which is also the highest in Western Europe, are unlikely to succeed if young women continue to face environmental risk and uncertainty.

This was one of the key findings of research from a team that included Sarah Johns. Together with colleagues from the universities of Middlesex and Portsmouth, Sarah investigated how an evolutionary framework might help move UK policy makers beyond an ‘intervention impasse’ on teenage pregnancy and motherhood. Among their conclusions, published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, the team found that environmental risk, including factors such as crime and vandalism, is a clear predictor of early pregnancy.

Dr Sarah Johns

It is estimated that the Labour government of 1997- 2010 spent nearly £468 million on various public educational and health initiatives to try and convince teenage girls to delay becoming pregnant or giving birth. However, Sarah and colleagues suggest that, rather than investing in educational programmes, money would be better spent on ‘the maintenance of at-risk neighbourhoods’. This would mean public money being diverted from existing teenage pregnancy unit policies and applied as specifically targeted supplements to local authority council tax budgets in areas with high rates of teenage pregnancy. She said: ‘Government initiatives since 1999 have squandered vast amounts of money, producing only a marginal decrease in teenage pregnancy to just below 40 per thousand. Current approaches are clearly ineffective.’

‘Our view is that the well-established links in evolutionary biology between reproduction and the risk – and the perception of risk – of dying at a younger age, are likely to provide a more effective foundation for understanding and tackling teenage pregnancy. Putting it simply, delaying pregnancy increases the likelihood of never having children, particularly when there is an increased risk of dying young. So if women perceive their future prospects are poor, why should they wait? ‘For us, it is unsurprising that the UK has such high rates of teenage motherhood in comparison to other European countries: the UK is extremely unequal with little social mobility; life expectancy and risk varies greatly, even across a few miles; relative poverty is especially psychologically damaging. ‘Therefore risk and mortality perception will vary greatly between different groups of people. Evolutionary biology predicts that people should be sensitive to this variation when it comes to reproductive decision-making, and having children at a young age is an evolutionary rational decision when such risks are high.