THE prize-winning author Hilary Mantel has opened up a public debate over teenage sex by saying that girls are ready to have babies at 14.
The 57-year-old novelist said society ran on a ''male timetable'' which dictated that women should have babies older.
''Having sex and having babies is what young women are about, and their instincts are suppressed in the interests of society's timetable,'' she said.
''I think it is that men's lives have set the timetable. Men reach a sort of sexual peak when you are 20, a social peak when you are 40. There is this breed of women for whom society's timetable is completely wrong.''
Mantel, who won the Man Booker Prize last year for Wolf Hall, said society was ''incredibly hypocritical'' about teenage sex and teenagers having babies.
''I was perfectly capable of setting up and running a home when I was 14, and if, say, it had been ordered differently, I might have thought, 'Now is the time to have a couple of children and when I am 30 I will go back and I'll get my PhD,''' she said.
''But society isn't yet ordered with that kind of flexibility,'' she said in an interview in Stella magazine. ''We were being educated well into our 20s, an age when part of us wanted to become mothers, probably little bits of all of us. Some were more driven than others.''
The writer's views met with a mixed response amid growing concern that Britain still has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe, despite a 10-year government campaign to lower the figures.
Sue MacDonald, of the Royal College of Midwives, said: ''Having a baby is a life-changing experience and 14-year-olds have enough to cope with just being 14.''
Norman Wells, of the Family Education Trust, said: ''The real issue is not the age at which women become mothers, but whether they are married to a man who is committed to supporting his wife through thick and thin.
''When a child enters the world without a stable family home and without both a mother and father, it's generally not such a happy event - and that is the situation that most teenage mothers find themselves in.''
Mantel was left unable to have children after suffering from a debilitating and painful illness during her 20s.
It was eventually diagnosed as a severe form of endometriosis and she is now patron of the Endometriosis SHE Trust.
There was support for Mantel from Claire Alexander, editor of a new study, Teenage Parenthood: What's the Problem?.Dr Alexander, of the London School of Economics, said teenage pregnancy could be a force for good since many young mothers were motivated to turn their lives around to provide for their children.