Britain has long been aware it has a problem with teenage pregnancy. But a story broken in February in the tabloid 'The Sun' - about a 13-year-old boy who had fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl - shocked even those inured by headlines about the endless government campaigns to discourage adolescents from becoming parents before they are adults themselves.
The impact of 'The Sun's' exclusive on the "baby-faced father of little Maisie" was derived from its picture of a very fresh-faced father, Alfie Patten, who looked closer to eight than 13, cradling a baby who, anyone would assume, was his younger sister. It quoted Alfie, who would have been only 12 at the time of conception - if the child is definitely his that is - as saying, "I think we'll be good parents. I'll have to work extra hard at school."
The mother, Chantelle Steadman, who was 14 when she became pregnant, told the paper, "The police and social workers came to interview us and they decided that we would make good parents to Maisie. Now, we will prove to everyone that we can be and give her a great future."
That could be a challenge. Boys as young as 11 have reportedly fathered children, albeit more discreetly. Following claims from other teenagers that baby Maisie could be theirs, DNA tests have been requested to determine whether Alfie, described as "a shy lad" whose voice has not yet broken, really is the father.
Whether he is or not, the story has thrown the spotlight on a decadent society, in which the first reflex is to sell a story to the press, not fix the underlying social problems. Britain's worrying high teenage pregnancy rate - second only to that of the United States in the developed world - sets it apart from Continental European countries.
The most up-to-date published figures, released at the end of February by Britain's Office for National Statistics, showed the under-18 conception rate had increased by 2.6 per cent in 2007, although it had fallen at the end of the year. The government emphasized that the overall trend was down and took heart from the lower rate for the final three months of 2007 (two per cent down on the same quarter of 2006). "The reduction in the last quarter of 2007 over 2006 gives me cautious optimism that the drive to reduce teenage conceptions is still on track," said Beverley Hughes, Children and Young People's Minister.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the under-18 conception rate of 41.7 per 1,000 in England represented a fall of 10.7 percent since 1998. The under-16 rate was 8.3 per 1,000, down 6.4 per cent over the same period.
The government did not provide comparative statistics. Figures published in 2001 by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) showed the US teen birth rate was 52.1 per 1,000, about four times the European Union average of 13.3. In its report, 'A League Table of Teenage Births in Rich Nations', it commented "giving birth while still a teenager was strongly associated with disadvantage later in life" for both the baby and the mother, who almost certainly loses out on education.
Apart from the social factors - teenage pregnancy has a tendency to be more prevalent among girls from poor social backgrounds - the very practical key to lowering the rate is better sex education. The European countries with the lowest rates of teen pregnancy - Sweden and the Netherlands, which have rates of less than seven births per 1,000 - are renowned for their atmosphere of sexual openness. "Evidence from the US shows that 86 per cent of the decline in teenage pregnancy rates was due to young people's improved contraceptive use," Hughes said in a statement and she insisted that Britain's left-leaning Labor government was taking action. "Evidence shows that good quality sex and relationship education and parents talking to their children delays early sex and increases the use of contraception... That's why we recently announced our decision to make sex and relationship education mandatory and why we are providing support to parents," she said.
The parents of the teens are the ones who most need educating, according to an article expressing outrage at Britain's broken society in the 'Telegraph' newspaper, which has a right-of-centre political bias. "Teenage pregnancies have become child pregnancies and the buck must stop with parents. What hope is there on estates where semi-feral children have intercourse with multiple partners, men routinely father children with a series of women and little boys who become dads before their voices break are in line to be paid a fortune for the television rights?" the newspaper demanded, with reference to the circumstances said to surround Alfie and Chantelle, where they live in the southern English seaside town of Eastbourne. "Every so often, a news story emerges that is so disturbing as to prompt complete strangers to pass comment about it on trains, at bus stops and over the headlines in the corner shop. So it is with baby-faced Alfie, who stands, bewildered and exploited, at the centre of this immorality tale for our times," the 'Telegraph' fulminated.
Legendary British publicist Max Clifford is now representing the Pattens. The London-based Max Clifford Associates has been responsible for more than 170 front-page exclusives within the last 18 months, the firm states on a website, which urges anyone with a story to tell to get in touch. But Clifford said he had only taken on the Pattens to help them with damage limitation. If they had approached him initially, he would have told them to stay away. "Had they come to me in the first place," he was quoted as saying in the left-leaning 'Guardian' newspaper, "I would have said, 'Keep it between the families, sort yourselves out, sort the little one out, don't go public, don't talk to anybody ... It's not in your interest. You might make a few thousand pounds from this, but believe me you'll have a nightmare and you'll be torn apart'."
The danger is that has already happened.