The Morning After

In January Baroness Young tried to stop emergency contraception being sold over the counter in chemists. Here's why the House of Lords were right to reject her arguments, says Catherine Redfern.

Catherine Redfern, 18 March 2001

(WARNING: This is rather a long rant! You might want to go and get a nice cuppa half way through...)

30th January 2001. It's the morning after the Lords voted not to ban sales of the morning after pill over the counter at chemists. Baroness Young, the well known 'family values campaigner', who is also staunchly opposed to dropping Section 28 and equalising the age of consent, tried to immediately halt sales of the pill by proposing an amendment to the original bill which allowed it.

It was stunning - like a fantastic feminist victory

I remember when I first heard the news that emergency contraception would be available from pharmacies from the new year, 2001. It was stunning - like a fantastic feminist victory. I had read many times of the troubles women had had trying to get hold of it from GP's offices, clinics or hospitals, having to wait for hours on end, having to endure patronising lectures from doctors, having to take a day off work just to get it, the panic if it was needed on a bank holiday or out of surgery hours. It was just amazing - and brilliant - that women would be able to have that extra resort to turn to quickly and easily when they needed it, thus providing another way to be responsible about family planning.

Travelling to college the morning after, I see the news has made the front page of the METRO (London's free newspaper). I see the headline: "MORNING AFTER PILL BEATS BAN" again and again on my journey, and each time feel a sense of satisfaction, and frankly, relief that it would be that much easier to get hold of if I or any other woman ever needed it.

The Night Before

The night before, Baroness Young had started a debate in the Lords that began at 6.50pm and lasted until 8.57pm. For two hours the House of Lords debated an issue which potentially affects the lives of all sexually active women - and men - in the UK.

Her arguments, and some of the views I heard against the sale of the pill in the days surrounding the debate were just truly unbelievable, and infruriated me. Here are some of the arguments that have actually been used against sales of the morning after pill.

"It will inevitably be bought by girls under the age of 16."

Baroness Young

an epidemic of teenage girls flocking en masse to their local Superdrug

Baroness Young's main argument against the pill was that it could be obtained by girls under the age of 16. By law, pharmacists cannot provide it to them, and are supposed to try to ascertain the woman's age before giving her the pill. Pharmacists are responsible, trained professionals who are used to offering advice to customers, and are certainly not stupid. However, this fear has been raised because newspapers such as the Daily Mail and others have sent in underage girls to obtain the pill, and then triumphantly presented the results, spreading fear that an epidemic of teenage girls will be flocking en masse to their local Superdrug and downing the things like sweets.

First of all, studies have shown that the highest usage of the pill is between the ages 20-29. The average age of use in the Manchester pilot scheme was 24. The lowest usage? 19 and under. So this image that its main users are young girls is completely, factually, plain wrong.

Moral panic anyone?

Secondly, even if 16 year olds are getting hold of it, that's no reason to stop the rest of womankind getting it. Plenty of things are sold with an age limit applied - things that can be much more harmful than preventing an unwanted pregnancy. Alcohol, and cigarettes, namely. We dont ban their sale over the counter, do we?

Thirdly, if underage girls do manage to obtain the pill; if getting it from an unbiased stranger means they will be more likely to try to get it, rather than doing nothing because they are quaking with fear and embarrassment at having to tell their family GP or their parents - well, in my opinion that's hardly a bad thing. I think that if a 16 year old girl is responsible enough to realise the consequences of her mistake and actually take action to remedy the problem, she should be commended, not punished.

In Baroness Young's opinion, "16 year olds are children in law... In law, they are not women, they are children." Perhaps in her world, girls stay childlike until 16 when puberty suddenly hits and they grow breasts, menstruate and have sex. With the exact date of their 16th birthday, their brains immediately become developed enough to be given respect and treated as the young adults they actually are. Ah well. What do I know?

"The boy will say to the girl, 'why not; you can take the morning after pill?'"

Baroness Young

Baroness Young's other fear is that sales of the pill will increase pressure on girls to have sex, because the boys will use this argument to force them into it.

The solution is not to ban sales of the pill but to EDUCATE girls

If this is happening, then its hardly due to emergency contraception being sold over the counter. The solution is not to ban sales of the pill but to EDUCATE girls and to give them enough self-esteem and savvy to realise that this kind of talk is absolute shite. They should be taught that they should only have sex when they desire and feel ready for it. This can only come through decent and thorough sex education.

"promiscuity will be encouraged."

Baroness Young

"Inevitably, it will give the green light to 'sleeping around' and will result in a substantial increase in the already very high level of promiscuity"

Lord Moran

In the view of Baroness Young, Lord Moran, and others such as the Daily Mail, for example, sales of the pill over the counter will inevitably increase promiscuity. The image is conjured up of hundreds of teenagers having much much much more sex and then skipping gaily down to Boots for their daily abdication of responsibility.

Okay. Lets tackle this one here and now. Take a hypothetical example of a so-called 'promiscuous' 16-year old girl. This girl has sex, on average, once a week (the question of whether this is promiscuous or not is another question entirely). That's 52 times a year.

This irresponsible, promiscuous, nightmare of Baroness Young, will have to go the pharmacy within 72 hours of the dirty deed, every single time. Emergency contraception from chemists costs £19.99 a throw. In a year, she will pay out £1039.48. She will be paying, on average, 24 times more to 'take advantage' of the morning after pill for each occurrence of sexual intercourse than she would if she simply bought a packet of condoms at 12 for £9.99 (over the exact same year this would cost £43.29).

Hello? What teenager - or adult, for that matter - can afford to do this; or is masochistic enough to prefer to troop to the chemists and ingest hormones into their body to control their fertility?

You won't stop people hurting themselves by making the cure harder to get hold of.

This is of course, leaving aside the fact that a girl irresponsible enough to have unprotected sex again and again and again is, schizophrenically, responsible enough to realise the consequences and get emergency contraception every single time. Its preposterous. You won't stop people hurting themselves by making the cure harder to get hold of. If teenagers are going to be promiscuous, it's not the morning after pill that causes it. Its their own ignorance and lack of maturity (or stupidity, if you prefer). This can be solved by - let's hear it - yes! Education!

This promiscuity idea is largely unfounded anyway. Statistics show that only 4 per cent of users of the pill needed it twice or more in a year, and in my book, sex twice a year (gasp!) doesn't count as promiscuity.

"If we had to choose between reducing the number of teenage pregnancies and reducing the occurrences of fornication and adultery, I know which I should choose. I know that some Christians will disagree with me, but I cannot imagine how a Christian could think that adultery and fornication were the lesser evil."

Earl of Longfield

In other words:

  1. The morning after pill encourages fornication and adultery.
  2. Fornication (i.e. sex outside marriage) - no matter how responsible and loving and caring it is - is WORSE than a teenage pregnancy. Better that a teenager get pregnant than consensual sex is encouraged.

You don't need me to explain to you how laughable this is.

"Girls can obtain the morning-after pill without the knowledge of their parents. That undermines family life. How many of us would like such medicines to be given to members of our family without our knowledge?"

Baroness Young

First of all it's debatable exactly how many underage girls need to obtain the pill, and furthermore, how many are actually obtaining it anyway (see figures mentioned above). But even so, how many teenage girls are relishing the opportunity to admit they have had sex to close members of their family? Mmm. Exactly. Sometimes it's easier for them to talk to an unbiased, objective stranger.

"It will increase the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases."

"It says that unprotected sex is alright."

"Of course the morning-after pill encourages unprotected sex - that is one of its purposes"

Baroness Young

The simple provision of the morning after pill in an easier to reach form does not say that unprotected sex is all right. I'm sorry, it doesn't. And to claim that that is the purpose of it? Words fail me.

"Women are abort[ing] a new human life once or twice every year."

letter written to the METRO.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, oh, so wrong. As Lord Patel testified in the Lords debate, the pill being provided over the counter, Leveonorgestrel, 'works by delaying ovulation and preventing fertilisation. It is not an abortifacient.'

The pharmacist "cannot consult the girl's GP and find out anything about her medical history."

Baroness Young

Women should be trusted with their own health.

It's true, there are certain conditions that are not suitable for the morning after pill. But

  1. Pharmacists check this first in an interview
  2. Women should be trusted with their own health. If they are told that if they have a certain condition it may not be a good idea to take the pill, they should be trusted to behave responsibly and tell the pharmacist. After all, there are other methods of emergency contraception that avoid the use of hormones and thus avoid health risks - such as having a coil fitted to prevent the egg attaching to the womb lining. The fact is that Levonorgestrel has less side effects that the previously used pill, PC4. It is 50% more effective and safer all round.

People will use it as "a lazy form of contraception"

Newspaper columnist

I actually read this comment from a female newspaper columnist. So it's "lazier" to pay 24 times more, have to visit the chemist after every single time, have a ten minute interview, and take a hormone pill - than - gosh, the effort it takes to do this - buy a packet of condoms 4 times a year?

Speed is of the essence

Selling the morning after pill over the counter will not spell the end of society as we know it. It will simply offer a quicker way to get hold of emergency contraception. Speed is of the essence here. The pill is 95 per cent effective if taken within 24 hours, 85 per cent within 25 to 48 hours, and 58 per cent if taken between 49 and 72 hours. Every child should be a wanted child, and parents should be prepared financially and emotionally. Emergency contraception, sold over the counter, will help this to happen.

You can read the full text of the debate on Prescription Only Medicines (29th January 2001) at the Hansard website.

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