Friday, 18 December 2009

Pouring Petrol On The Flames

As the season of the Virgin Birth bears down on us, the media is carrying a story about teenagers being given the contraceptive pill 'on demand'.

Reporting varies from the factual to 'The pill is being handed out to teenagers like Smarties, it's the end of civilization as we know it' (again).

First, the facts. An NHS pilot scheme is offering the Pill to teenagers in pharmacies without prescription in Southwark and Lambeth, two London boroughs.

Just to reiterate, it's a pilot scheme. It may work, it may not. That's what pilots are for - to try something and if it doesn't work, then it's on to the next thing. Doing nothing is not an option in any responsible society, as the current statistics show.

In 2007, 4.2% of women under 18 in England got pregnant. In Southwark, it was 7.6%. So it would seem a good idea to trial new preventive measures there.

The morning after pill is already available over the counter (except from pharmacists who have religious objections to selling it). And contrary to what some papers are implying, the Pill is already available 'on demand' from doctors. Teenagers in Southwark and Lambeth are not just being given it in cavalier fashion. Three specially trained pharmacists are offering contraceptive consultations to young women asking for the morning after pill. They are taken through a series of checks similar to those done by GPs. The idea is that this will be a more accessible service for young women who may also have issues around confidentiality with family doctors and potential parental disapproval.

If the trial works, the scheme will be rolled out more widely. This would seem to be a sensible idea - fewer abortions, fewer single mothers, fewer young couples struggling to raise children, often in deprived areas. You'd think the right wing press would be in favour of anything that cuts down on the number of dole scroungers.

But yet again, voices of moral and religious opposition are being raised against the trial in the mainstream media.

Tory MP Julian Brazier said: 'This looks just like an advertisement for washing powder. It is very worrying. It is yet another example of Labour abandoning civil society' and another Tory, Nadine Dorries, said: 'The poster looks as though it's designed to market something as benign and attractive as sweets, sending entirely the wrong moral message'. Could there be an election coming up?

The spokesman for the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) said: "I'm not aware of any evidence this is going to be effective. It may be pouring petrol on the flames".

By which I assume they mean the usual 'it will just encourage them to have sex'.

The CMF and I are old friends (I use the term loosely). I've already written about their take on abortion (makes you mad and gives you cancer) and their interesting relationship with the truth about condoms. I've also written about how religious groups try to whip up fear and loathing over PSHE (sex education), another vital way of helping teenagers understand and manage their sexuality. As far as the religious are concerned, it's abstinence or nothing. And we all know how well abstinence works.

Of course, there are other issues; preventing pregnancy is not the whole story while transmission rates of STIs grow. But it's a start.

One surprising voice in favour of contraception is Cherie Blair. This good Catholic girl is anti-abortion but pro-contraception. In an article in the Tatler, she said that "Controlling our fertility has been one of the key reasons why women have been able to progress."

Not surprisingly, some of her fellow believers have been outraged by this. John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said that her comments 'are wrong in so many ways'. He recommends the Billings Ovulation Method. But only for married women, of course.

This method was invented by John Billings, a staunch Catholic who got a Papal knighthood for it. It's a newer version of the rhythm method that relies on women being aware of changing sensations in the vulva and variations in vaginal discharge. It also relies on them being able to fend their husbands off at fertile times and does not protect from infections. There is some evidence that trials in third world countries and China have found it successful but the evidence is presented by its religious proponents so needs closer examination.

The Billings website says that 'Emotional harmony between husband and wife is also essential for normal functioning of the woman's reproductive system'. If that were true, the birth rate would be a whole lot lower worldwide. There would be countless malfunctioning wombs.

The Billings Method, abstinence promotion and the current outcry about the Pill have one thing in common. They may claim to be founded on care for women, especially in poorer countries, on helping them control fertility and preventing them being infected but in reality, they are all founded on the religious disapproval of sex outside marriage and/or contraception.

For believers, sex is only for married couples and the outcome of it must rest in God's hands. There must be a chance that a sperm can connect with an egg if He so wills it.

I'm not sure why an omnipotent being can't get a sperm through a condom or cap, and why he can't make a baby when a woman is on the Pill. But apparently he can't, even though he managed to put baby Jesus into Mary. And so women must be either virgins or mothers (or both at once in Mary's case).

Even media and people who are not ostensibly religious are culturally informed by this view, this moral disapproval of sex for fun that has its roots in Christianity and more specifically in the writings of that gift to womankind, St Paul. This is the root of ideas about sex being special or a sacred act or dangerous or for reproduction only. Women's sexuality in particular must be controlled.

There are class elements (the plebs are at it like rabbits and our taxes have to support them) and elements of wilful ignorance (why let the facts get in the way of a good story?) but once again it's about certain people and organisations giving themselves the authority and moral right to decide who can have sex.

Meanwhile, 4.2% of young women are getting pregnant.

Dr Petra Boynton has also covered this story in her excellent blog.

26 April 2012: There's an update on this story here. A pilot scheme found a significant drop in emergency contraception after the launch of over-the-counter pill access. The study by NHS South East London judged the scheme a success. Its report also recommended providing the service to girls from the age of 13 as a way of helping to reduce teenage pregnancies. Inevitably, the Christian Medical Fellowship wheeled out its same old objections.


  1. Since no one else has posted here, I, a male, will sound my enthusiastic support for Tessera's rant on women controlling their reproductive destiny. my wife of (in 2010, 42 years) and I have worked very hard to limit our fecundity, and have three sons and one grandchild. Another is on the way. We consider ourselves contributing to the reduction in the human population.

    Now, our efforts likely will prove fruitless, based on the inevitable procreativity impulse of all animals.

    Our grandchildren will likely inherit a reduced Earth. However, our solar hotwater and solar electric investment may mean they inherit more than most others.

    So cheers to all of us that understand (however limited understanding may be) that the world is a precious place.


  2. There are some more comments on Lay Science where I guest blog;