Now we can argue over who is taking the pill

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The Independent Online

For those who pursue a rigidly literal agenda on "gender equality", the news that it may be as little as five years until there is a universally available male contraceptive pill is much to be celebrated. For while the female contraceptive pill may have been an invention that brought with it all kinds of female liberations, it also served to keep responsibility for non-barrier protection against pregnancy firmly in the care of the female.

For those who pursue a rigidly literal agenda on "gender equality", the news that it may be as little as five years until there is a universally available male contraceptive pill is much to be celebrated. For while the female contraceptive pill may have been an invention that brought with it all kinds of female liberations, it also served to keep responsibility for non-barrier protection against pregnancy firmly in the care of the female.

Soon, it appears, men and women may have a new thing to bicker about - whether one, the other or both should be "on the Pill". And who, if the male partner volunteers for elective infertility, should call and make the doctor's appointment. After all, men are notorious for not getting this simple procedure together even if they are seriously ill. So it's hard to see how they are going to adjust to popping off to get repeat prescriptions for a drug that restrains their jealously defended "biological imperatives".

Not to mention the prospect of countless female teenagers conned into pregnancy as their seducers whisper, "Don't worry, I'm on the Pill... " Up until now this has, of course, been the weapon of women "trapping" men into fatherhood. How nice that there will be a new equality in the playing of this old trick.

Or could it be that a male Pill is simply going to be another "contraception choice" used intelligently by people who do not wish either partner to bear all of the brunt of chemical contraception over a long period, or even, heaven forfend, by responsible young men who care enough for their sexual partners to assume a position that offers them protection against an unwanted conception?

This latter scenario finds no favour with the Catholic church, which has greeted the news of the male Pill in typical fashion. A spokesman for the Catholic church in Scotland - where the British trials on the pill have been carried out - leaves us in no doubt as to the official line:

"As far as we're concerned, any form of artificial contraception is wrong - a male Pill would be as wrong as a female Pill. In 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued his decision on the morality of contraception, he condemned the advent of the female Pill. Over 32 years have passed since, and he predicted if this, what he called contraceptive morality, took hold, there would be a whole number of unfortunate consequences - like people having a more relaxed attitude to abortion and marriage, increased divorce and a large number of unplanned pregnancies. All of these have come true, and 32 years on we are reaping the fruits of that mentality. The advent of the male Pill will be another step in that direction."

Now, whatever your view on whether the contraceptive pill alone is responsible for the sexual revolution, this assertion still seems a little exaggerated. It is the phrase "another step in that direction" that jars most of all. I'm perfectly happy to accept that there have been some messy, sad and even tragic consequences of the sexual revolution - you'd have to be supremely out of touch to deny that.

But what I cannot accept is that a slightly wider range of contraceptive options is going to fan many more flames of unbridled sexuality or irresponsible lust. Apart from anything else, I can't believe that there are many more flames to fan. What does strike me, however, is that the Catholic church has got into the habit of always thinking the worst of people. Clearly, the worry of the Scottish Catholics is that many more women will be tricked into having unprotected intercourse. Such a worry suggests a shockingly cynical view of the male sex.

What also strikes me is the sheer illogicality here. Surely the abortions and the unplanned pregnancies are the consequence of failure to use contraception, just as, to bring in another example of Catholic controversy, the spread of Aids in Africa is partly due to the failure to use condoms.

The sad truth about the sexual revolution is that its ramifications have impacted least successfully on the most vulnerable. Educated and privileged men and women have used contraception to have smaller families later in life. Contraception is working for them. The young, the poor and the ill-educated are the people who get "caught out", and the ill-conceived children of these people often suffer terribly too, as more than 50,000 minors in care in this country can testify. Teenage pregnancy and abortion rates bear this out in Britain, as does the spread of Aids in Africa.

The Catholic church is right to be concerned about this, but wrong to insist that the way to protect the vulnerable is to turn the clock back. The wrangles around Clare Short's recent criticisms of the Catholic church in Africa have been a sad reminder of the intractability of the Vatican's edicts on contraception, which began, as the Scottish spokesman says, with Humanae vitae in 1968.

But there have also been many heartening signs from ordinary Catholics, suggesting that the Church may very soon find itself able to do what it is best suited for in this day and age, which is helping and protecting the vulnerable. Terry Wynn, MEP, wrote to this newspaper offering eyewitness evidence of how he had seen posters advising the use of condoms in a women's health centre in a South African township.

Others have testified how many Catholics working in the field are ignoring the restrictions placed upon them by their leaders. But most hopeful was an article by Clifford Longley in The Independent on Sunday. He highlighted the work of the moral theologian Kevin Kelly, who argues: "Granted the scientifically established capacity of good-quality condoms, properly used, to diminish considerably the risk of HIV infection, would not condom use be more accurately described, from the moral perspective, as life-preserving rather than life-preventing, pro-life rather than anti-life?"

While this entirely logical argument is unlikely to cut any ice in the Vatican for some time to come, it seems to me that it can be used to justify the use of other contraceptives as well. We need contraceptives to be more widespread, not less, in order that the most vulnerable in our society can protect themselves. At the moment it is the church - and not just the Catholic church - that is hampering the attainment of such a goal.

What has been proven again and again to be the most effective way of persuading the young and the vulnerable to adopt responsible attitudes to intercourse is straightforward, clear, honest sex education, not to mention unhampered access to contraceptives. Instead, religious leaders fight such policies and insist on moral indoctrination being included in sex education. Children must be taught that only in marriage is it appropriate to have a child, even if the child is not the fruit of such a union itself. Children must not be taught that homosexuality exists, in case this state is "promoted" to them. And so on.

Such imperatives fly in the face of what children see all around them, so that when real truths - such as the fact that there is no rush to have sex, and that involving yourself in such intense relationships too young can have damaging consequences - are taught to them, they are no more inclined to believe these than all the rest.

It is about time that religious organisations grasped the fact that those who want their health to be regulated on religious lines, or believe that education should be conducted in this way, are perfectly capable of organising such things for themselves or for their children. Otherwise, what children need is for all the facts to be laid before them in a manner that connects with the reality that they see around them.

Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, schoolboys can be taught that while condoms are necessary for casual sex, they can take the male pill to protect their girlfriend in a steady, monogamous relationship. This seems to me to hold out a better hope of decreasing unplanned pregnancies and abortions than the insistence that the world was a better place before the contraceptive pill. Maybe, in some respects, it was. But the past is gone for ever.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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