I’ll start this piece with an apology to my mum. Sorry Mum. You see, despite stringent sex education from both parents and school, I’m ashamed to say that once or twice in my sexually active life I’ve found myself making a morning dash to the chemist to ask for the magical £25 pill that will (pretty much) guarantee I don’t give birth to a bawling infant nine months down the line.
Each fateful time I’ve found myself in this gruesome predicament I’ve been ushered into a little room, escorted by a senior chemist keen to hurry me away from less promiscuous customers. I’ve then been asked to fill out a form about my sex-life and given a health and safety lecture, before being spat out into the bright lights of the shop floor - guilty package in hand, purse considerably lighter - and forced to walk the length of the shop, the focus of many prying eyes.
Thankfully, the blushes and bank balances of sexually active girls may now be saved, as under new NHS guidance young women will be able to pre-order the morning-after pill for free, banishing once and for all the panicked rush to the chemist after a night of loose morals. The advice for GPs and chemists says under-25s – including girls under 16 – should be able to obtain the morning-after pill more easily and, crucially, more discreetly, in advance of having sexual intercourse.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has apparently opposed the change amid fears the move could encourage promiscuity and increase the number of girls and young women having unprotected sex. (What about boys Jeremy? It takes two to tango.)
According to Professor Mike Kelly, director of the centre for public health at the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), evidence shows that the availability of contraception reduces the rate of unwanted pregnancies. But preventing accidental offspring isn’t the only reason young lovers are encouraged to put something on the end of it.
The biggest fear, presumably, is that in making emergency contraception more readily available, a generation of kids will be brought up with a flagrant disregard for the seriousness of unprotected sex. This is a reasonable fear, especially since evidence shows women who have emergency contraception in advance are more likely to have unprotected sex and come to regard the morning-after pill as a safety net, leaving them at greater risk of sexually transmitted diseases and other such nasties. Fortunately, this worry can be resolved.
Talking to children about the sticky business of sex from a young age is the best way to avoid an STI pandemic. We must ignore the nervous giggles and rude remarks from the back of the classroom and strive to improve sex education in our schools. It’s all very well making it easy for young Casanovas to get their grubby mits on emergency contraception, but if we don’t teach them the appropriate way to use it we’ll soon find ourselves knee-deep in Chlamydia tests instead of nappies.
Non-intimidating information on how to get hold of contraception (emergency or otherwise) should also be available. I have a friend who, at 17 and after a slip of a condom, was faced with the daunting prospect of taking the morning-after pill. Unaware the medicine could be purchased for a heady sum from any good chemist, she rushed to A&E with her boyfriend and, still flushed from their coitus, demanded emergency contraception, only to be told by a gentle nurse to head to the nearest Boots.
As a non-religious, sexually active, and staunchly feminist woman, I firmly believe the invention of the Pill was a game changer for women who wanted to carve out a career for themselves in a man’s world, finally giving them the gizmo they needed to have sex for fun and prevent profession-hindering pregnancies.
But emergency contraception is a different beast. Useful though it is, and I can testify to that, it must be handled with care and shouldn’t become a crutch for couples who can’t be bothered to plan ahead. By all means make the morning-after pill more accessible to youngsters, but let’s couple convenience with education. Prevention is, after all, better than cure.
And to all the girls who, like me, have suffered hushed tones and patronising questionnaires, all for the privilege of handing over £25 for a pill that will stop a pregnancy in its tracks, I say well done. It takes a hell of a lot of courage to march up to a cashier and ask for emergency contraception. It’s much easier, in the short term, to plough on and hope the whole thing goes away. Of course, in the long term, the easy way out will demand a darn sight more bravery than dealing with a few disapproving looks.