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Health services grow to meet increase in teen pregnancies
( 2003-08-07 14:25) (Agencies)

The growing number of pregnant Chinese teenagers -- once shunned because of the shame they brought to their families -- are finding new avenues for professional and safe help and advice.

The Obstetric and Pediatric Hospital of Chengdu, capital of the southwest Sichuan Province, has launched a special service for pregnant teenagers, offering free abortion operations to girls aged 18 or below.

"We have received 1,400 calls for help since the service hotline was set up. This is out of all expectation," said Chen Lili, head nurse of the service.

With the acceleration of China's opening, young people differ greatly from their parents in their opinions on sex. Parents traditionally preach caution or abstinence, but young people are being influenced by depictions of sex on television and the Internet.

As a result, unprotected sex among adolescents is becoming more common.

Chen said, "A huge number of pregnant girls call in for help, but very few come in because the law strictly requires underage girls seeking an abortion to be accompanied by a legal guardian. We did the operation for only three girls over the past fortnight."

She said Chinese were more open about sex than previously, but a teenage pregnancy remained a source of shame, causing girls to avoid having abortions as they risked enraging their parents by telling the truth and asking to be accompanied.

Chongqing Municipality, in southwest China, founded the country's first help service on sexual matters for teenagers early this year. Confidentiality is the guiding principle of the agency wheregirls receive free birth control within one week of having sexual intercourse. If they are already pregnant, they are not condemned at the agency.

In its five months of operation, the agency has treated 200 pregnant girls, the youngest of whom was only 12. Statistics of the hospital which sponsors the agency show that in 1998 unmarriedgirls who received abortions at the hospital accounted for 13 percent of the total, compared to 33.6 percent now.

Hu Weiguang, professor at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences, said, "There is a gap between the more open-minded opinions on sex and the sex education provided to kids through proper channels, which results in many girls becoming pregnant."

With rising living standards, boys and girls are becoming sexually mature as young as 12 or 13, and becoming sexually activeearlier, leading to more teenage pregnancies. Worldwide each year about 14 million adolescent girls give birth, most of them unplanned, while about 4.4 million girls have abortions.

China has 200 million young people between 15 and 24, and each year 20 million young people enter adolescence, with their sexual maturity coming four or five years sooner than in the 1970s.

Liu Hong, director of the Birth Control Institute of Chongqing,said unwanted pregnancies were extremely stressful and aid agencies like those in Chongqing and Chengdu would help teenagers cope both mentally and physically, and help avoid future trauma.

But some educators argue that such aid agencies will to some extent encourage unprotected sex among young people because they can get free contraception and abortion services.

Zheng Zhongwei, president of the Obstetric and Pediatric Hospital of Chengdu, said such agencies merely amend mistakes, andthe key to solving the problem is better education of young peopleabout sex and health.

At the National People's Congress, China's parliament, March session, senior legislators filed proposals calling for improvements in the sex education of Chinese youth, and suggested a compulsory program in schools. Sex education has since become available at middle and elementary schools across the country.

A parent of a student at the Shishi United Middle School, in Chengdu, said, "We welcome sex education in schools, and our kids can learn about sex in a proper manner. But as parents, we worry that more information will have a negative impact on kids, so it is a long-standing issue for education authorities to set the right limits on sex education."

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