Britain's 'Babyfather' Breeds Debate

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

LONDON, Feb. 16 The sweet, round face of the "babyfather" stares back from the newspaper pages.

Little Alfie is 13 and looks years younger. Yet there he is, a 4-foot-tall father on the hospital bed cuddling his newborn baby daughter, the child of his 15-year-old girlfriend, Chantelle.

Those simple facts are sad enough. But now throw in that Alfie and Chantelle's parents have 15 children between them, that the families are getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to sell their story to the tabloids, that 10 film companies are jostling to make the movie, and that at least two other boys claim that they may have fathered the girl.

Suddenly Britain is wondering when exactly their country became an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show."

"This is a modern-day fable of British life," Nick Ferrari, a popular London radio host, said on his talk show Monday morning. "What an unwholesome mix."

Whether Alfie Patten and Chantelle Steadman are a symbol of something rotten at the core of British society is up for debate. Several commentators have pointed out that teen pregnancy is hardly new, and hardly unique to Britain.

Alfie and Chantelle, they argue, are news only because Alfie looks nearly as cherubic as his baby daughter. And the babyfather photo is exactly the type the tabloids love to splash on days when Prince Harry isn't doing something ridiculous.

But still, the Alfie and Chantelle show is dominating the news these days, and causing lots of soul-searching about where these kids came from, where they are going, and what it all says about British life.

Melanie Phillips, a columnist in the Daily Mail, wrote on Monday that it was a fitting tale "for our tragically degraded times."

Phillips noted that Britain has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Western Europe. The U.K.-based Family Planning Association said that, based on a 2001 UNICEF study, Britain's rate of teen births was triple that of France and double that of Germany (although still half the rate in the United States).

Phillips blamed that on a breakdown in family and a "profound loss of the very notions of self-restraint and boundaries of behavior."

She said sex education in Britain lacks a moral component, so that children are "taught to treat sex a bit like bungee-jumping or paragliding -- to have fun doing it, but to take precautions to avoid getting hurt."

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