Decline in Maltese teen pregnancies enters eighth year

Malta may have reversed a worrying trend of teen pregnancies, but experts are not yet sure this is just down to sexual education campaigns

The 2012 study Health Behaviour in school-aged children found that 40% of teens aged 16-18 were already sexually active
The 2012 study Health Behaviour in school-aged children found that 40% of teens aged 16-18 were already sexually active

Malta’s rate of teenage pregnancies has entered an eight-year trend that shows fewer young women are having babies.

The latest data from the National Obstetric Information System shows the proportion of mums aged 18 or younger has been on a declining trend for eight years.

Teenage mums have been on a consistent decline from 2009, when 2.7% of all deliveries were to a mum aged 18 or younger, to just over 0.7%.

Conversely, the greatest number of deliveries, in 2016 – 1,588 – or 35.6% of all mums, was to women in the 30-34 age group, again consistent with the trend of increasing overall average maternal age over the past decade.

Dr Neville Calleja, the director of health information, says the good news of declining teenage pregnancies is welcome although it is hard to pinpoint exactly the cause for this reversal.

Between 2000 and 2009, Malta’s teenage pregnancy rate was actually getting worse, climbing from 1.7% to 2.7% in nine years.

“I’d like to think that sexual education campaigns have been working, but the exact reason is difficult to pin down,” Calleja, a medical statistician and specialist in public health, says.

“It’s speculative to say that sexual education campaigns have been working. We’d have to say that girls today are more empowered and fewer mistakes are being committed. We saw no correlation with abortion statistics from other European countries, which means this could actually be a change in behaviour and lifestyle.”

Malta’s efforts at taking sexual education campaigns to schools have always been blunted by vocal protests from Catholic authorities. In 2010, Gozo Bishop Mario Grech caused a splash when suggesting that educational authorities would be committing “abuse on our students if instead of helping them learn how to educate their sexual energy, offers them an education and methods such as contraceptives, to buy into the culture of pleasure.”

His remarks came just a year after a World Health Organisation advisor, clinical specialist John Richens, noted in a report the “strong negative influence of the Catholic Church” in sexual education and that Malta was burying its head in the sand on sexual health.

It was only in 2010 that a national sexual health policy was given the green light with a €200,000 budget – after undergoing three drafts since 1999.

Grech’s comments were strongly criticised by Dr Philip Carabott, the then head of the national genitourinary clinic, who noted that Malta had among the highest teenage pregnancies in Europe. “If the Bishop thinks this (sexual health) education is ‘tantamount to abuse’, then good luck to him.”

Malta’s sexual health debate has since evolved, even though one of the oldest chestnuts in the entire saga – the installation of a contraceptive machine at the University of Malta – was only resolved in 2016.

Health minister Chris Fearne is also yet to lower Malta’s age of consent. In 2016 the dormant debate was reignited in the parliamentary social affairs committee, which was told by the Medical Council that the age of consent should be lowered from 18 to 16.

The 2012 study Health Behaviour in School-aged Children found that 40% of teens aged 16-18 in Malta were already sexually active. The Malta Paediatric Association has also said that statistics indicate that the age of sexual debut is on average around 15 years.

In 2014, a survey by the Maltese Catholic archdiocese – which garnered over 7,000 responses – showed a sizeable number of Catholics were at odds with the church’s ban on contraception and its teaching on sexuality. Altogether, 51.3% said the Church’s teaching “on sexuality in general, its position on abortion/euthanasia, divorce, birth control, heterosexual marriages and the refusal to give Holy Communion to cohabiting couples/civilly married/divorced and remarried” are contested by non-Catholics and non-practising Catholics.

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