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Better sex education and conversations with parents: Why the teen pregnancy rate keeps falling

The number of teenage pregnancies in Ireland has fallen by 64% in 15 years.

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THE NUMBER OF teenage pregnancies has fallen by 64% in 15 years.

Earlier this year, figures released by the CSO showed a decrease in the number of teenage births from 3,087 in 2001 to 1,098 in 2016.

This equates to a decrease in the teen birth rate from 20 per 1,000 of females aged 15-19 in Ireland in 2001 to 7.8 per 1,000 in 2016.

So, why has it dropped so much?

Niall Behan, Chief Executive of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) told TheJournal.ie: “We think it’s down to better sexuality education and better conversations between parents and young people.”

Behan said that, as well as the conception rate among teenage girls decreasing in recent years, so too has the abortion rate.

In 2016, 10 girls under the age of 16 sought an abortion in the UK, as did 56 girls aged 16 or 17 and 174 women aged 18 or 19 – according to figures from the UK Department of Health.

Behan said the decline in teenage pregnancy rates first noted in the early 2000s was likely a result of changes made to the sexual health education curriculum in the late 1990s.

He noted that sex ed can vary widely depending on the school, stating: “A lot of schools will talk about the main issues, some won’t.” He said some schools are “very reluctant” to talk about contraception, often for religious reasons.

There are some boards of management who still are reluctant to allow teachers to provide comprehensive sexual education. In fairness, that has diminished a lot.

“How an issue like contraception is talked about can influence its use,” he said, noting that some teachers may feel embarrassed when broaching the topic.

Behan said fear tactics around teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted infections may have an “initial scare impact on young people” but don’t help long-term, adding: “They need to be taught about contraception.”

Behan said people need to accept that humans are “sexual beings” and “young people will experiment around their sexuality”. He said it’s also important that young people are taught about the emotional aspects of relationships.

Behan said the curriculum could be further improved by being more inclusive of the LGBTI+ community. He added that the sex ed curriculum in some European countries discusses the opportunities girls and young women may lose out on if they become pregnant – something that could be also further explored in Ireland.

Behan said abstinence is no longer commonly taught as a way of avoiding pregnancy, but still features in some programmes, usually those imported from US evangelical organisations. He said these can have a “really negative effect”, adding there is “no evidence they have any impact on rates of teen pregnancy”.

Speaking about the role parents also play in terms of teaching young people about sexual health and contraception, Behan said there is an “increasing level of comfort” around discussing these issues, but it’ll always be an awkward conversation for some people.

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When asked about how sex ed can vary widely in schools, a spokesperson from the HSE’s Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme (SHCPP) noted: “While research suggests that more RSE (Relationships and Sexuality Education) is happening in schools, the Department of Education Inspectorate continues to report a variation in the quality of the RSE programme taught in schools and students continue to report dissatisfaction with the RSE programme.”

The spokesperson said the SHCPP and the Department of Education have commissioned qualitative research “to help understand how RSE is experienced from the perspectives of stakeholders in a sample of post-primary schools”.

A key objective of the research is to assess what is required to support schools to improve implementation and quality of RSE. The recommendations from the project will help inform the steps needed to be taken to support teachers and principals.

The spokesperson added that RSE “has made a significant contribution to the decline in teenage pregnancies”.

According to the Irish Contraception and Crisis Pregnancy Study 2010, most young people were having sex for the first time between 17-19 years. Some 37% of men aged 18-25 and 26% of women aged 18-25 reported having had sex before the age of 17.

In the Growing up in Ireland Study carried out in 2016 (a nationally representative survey of 17 and 18-year-olds), one-third of young people said they had previously had sexual intercourse. Of those who were sexually active, 79% reported that they always used some form of contraception.

“This data suggests that the majority of sexually active teenagers in Ireland are aware of the risk of pregnancy and use contraception to protect themselves,” the HSE spokesperson said.

Read: The number of teenage pregnancies in Ireland has fallen by 64% – but STIs are on the rise

Read: As it happened: ‘Women from all walks of life and from every county in Ireland travel for abortion’

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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