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Teenagers do their own family planning

The Age (Melbourne, Australia), By Amanda Dunn, Health Reporter, June 21, 2004

Contrary to popular belief, not all teenage pregnancies are accidents. A Victorian study has found that about a third of young mothers plan their pregnancies, and many believe having a baby will be one of the most positive experiences of their lives.

The attraction, said Julie Quinlivan, a professor of obstetrics at Melbourne University and head of the Royal Women's Hospital's "Young Mums" clinic, is in part the chance to build a loving family life for themselves, which is sometimes in contrast to their own experience.

In a study of 100 women who planned to continue their pregnancies, half of whom were teenagers, Professor Quinlivan found that the younger women were more likely to have come from fractured families.

More than half of the teenagers' parents separated before they were five, compared with just 8 per cent of the older women's parents. They also were more likely to have been exposed to violence between their parents (22 per cent compared to 2 per cent), and to have had negative relationships with them.

For some teenagers, creating their own family was a way to escape. Professor Quinlivan said: "If you have an adverse early life, you want to grow up fast, and get out early to feel safer."

The study, the first in the world to look at the psychological background of teenage mothers, also found they had higher rates of depression than older mothers. The findings have been published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.

One of the strongest themes to emerge from interviews with the women, Professor Quinlivan said, was the women's idealisation of motherhood - more than half agreed it would be the most exciting event of their lives.

And part of that anticipation was the prospect of a baby's unconditional love.

"That comes through all the time, that this is someone who loves me," she said.

She said the findings showed that a more sophisticated approach to reducing the number of teenage mothers in Australia was needed - that it was not simply a matter of improving sex education or access to contraception. Rather, it was one of "breaking the cycle", as the children of teenage parents were more likely to become teenage parents themselves.

Professor Quinlivan believed federal Health Minister Tony Abbott's plan to allow parents access to the Medicare records of their children under 16 (up from under 14) would be a false step. She said that by the age of 15 young people should be able to control information about their health. But she also believed that 14 was too young to make decisions on their own, and that they needed the support of an adult.

"I just find that when you get girls who are sexually active at 14, they often do have a lot of other issues," she said.

In Professor Quinlivan's experience, about a third of teenage mothers coped well with their new role, about a third had a mixed experience, and the remaining third fared poorly.

"The ones who do well have family support, get back into education, and don't have another baby straight away," Professor Quinlivan said. About half of teenage mothers have another child within two years, which makes it difficult for them to continue their education.

Those who view motherhood as a positive step often take action to care for their babies from early pregnancy. The study found that 60 per cent of the teenagers who smoked quit with the onset of pregnancy, compared with 77 per cent of the older mothers. Nearly three-quarters of the teenagers who drank alcohol stopped (compared with 86 per cent of older mothers). The younger women were more likely to be illicit drug users before pregnancy, and three-quarters stopped when they became pregnant. All the older mothers who used illicit drugs quit during pregnancy.

Professor Quinlivan was delighted that some Victorian schools were looking at ways of supporting young mothers and fathers to finish their schooling.

"Even though they have had a child, we have got to say 'look, this doesn't mean you throw your education options away'," she said.

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