The morning-after pill is an easy option, but it won't solve anything

'We encourage young sexuality all the time while denying the consequences of this public promiscuity'
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The Independent Online

Rejoice then, all of you who have been fighting for the morning-after pill to be more freely available to those who need it. Or at least to those who know that they need it, which is not the same thing. From January, pharmacies will be allowed to dispense the four tablets - which prevent the implantation of a fertilised egg - to women and girls (by law over the age of 16, although pilot projects have been giving such pills to 12- and 13-year-olds) who turn up within 72 hours of having unprotected sex. No prescriptions will be necessary.

Rejoice then, all of you who have been fighting for the morning-after pill to be more freely available to those who need it. Or at least to those who know that they need it, which is not the same thing. From January, pharmacies will be allowed to dispense the four tablets - which prevent the implantation of a fertilised egg - to women and girls (by law over the age of 16, although pilot projects have been giving such pills to 12- and 13-year-olds) who turn up within 72 hours of having unprotected sex. No prescriptions will be necessary.

The pills are ineffective for early abortions, although many desperate women, will, I am sure, grab this latest offering in between trying the gin-in-a-hot-bath solution. But for those who realise that they did what they did without using what they should have used - and these will be mainly young people - an escape route from the possible consequences of such rash passion can be obtained quickly, as long as that stern Mr Patel in your pharmacy doesn't intimidate you with his disapproving eyes.

This is not just a glib line. Vast numbers of local pharmacies in this country are run by Asians, who will now, like all qualified pharmacists, be expected, in place of the GP, to carry out intimate interviews with women requesting the pill. This is what the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has agreed. Knowing what I do about attitudes to sex before marriage in the Asian, Turkish and Chinese communities (social condemnation of both non-marital sex and pregnancy remains ruthless), I am sure these chemists have mixed feelings about this latest power. I only mention this to remind people that the differences of opinion over these changes cannot simply be understood in terms of an unending battle between Tory Middle England and freedom's children on the left.

And yet once more, as ever, entirely predictable responses have followed in the wake of this announcement. Ann Widdecombe says in a newspaper interview: "It does not at all sit in with my moral views as to what should happen," and frets about teenage girls and sexual health. Liam Fox is appalled. Family planning campaigners, feminists and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) are feeling victorious, and see this as another move towards giving women control over their bodies. I never understood this idea, not even back in the Seventies. I believe absolutely that a woman must own her body when it comes to sexual relationships, but when I am pregnant, I find it impossible to think of my body as mine alone. It becomes, for me, a space which I share with another, much more vulnerable being, who is a part of me and apart from me.

Ann Furedi of the BPAS bubbles optimistically that one day these pills will be "just another pharmaceutical product" in the bathroom cabinet. Together with Viagra and anti-VD drugs too, perhaps. Conventional old world versus defiant new world, neither of which makes sense on its own.

I am proudly left of centre on economics, politics, human rights, the environment and global relations. But I am not at all convinced that the left has got it right when it comes to sexual mores, freedom of expression, family life, individual gratification, work/children balance and other issues. So whereas I do think these pills will make a difference to a small number of young women, they will not help to bring down the rate of teenage pregnancies in this country, which is now four times that of France and eight times that of the Netherlands. In her sensitive book, The Parent Trap, Maureen Freely provides important evidence and arguments on how we must not fall into the cheap moralism of the right on this problem. But what about the even cheaper (because it is easier) amorality of the left?

Anything that helps a woman not to have a child she does not want or cannot have is the best thing for mother and child. And it should concern us all that so many of the poorest, least educated young women in this country end up with unwanted pregnancies. But if we believe that we can deal with social problems by providing quick-fix, morning-after answers, we may make things worse, not better.

Take drink-driving. Behaviour has changed so much in 15 years that we have almost forgotten how the transformation was achieved. People who drank too much could have been given state-funded taxi cards to get them home and free parking facilities for their cars. That way the numbers of accidents would have gone down too, but we would never have got the massive change in public attitude, the shame, censure, fear and firmly established ideas about right and wrong. This was done through relentless public education campaigns. No public figure treats drink-driving as a joke, or with fond and helpless indulgence, or as an inevitability. Nothing equivalent has been done to discourage teenage sex.

In fact, we are doing the opposite with this social problem. We encourage young sexuality all the time, while denying the consequences of this public promiscuity. Young people are soaked in sexualised images and messages (I had to distract my child the other day from interrogating me about the Opium ad on billboards, showing a woman lying naked in an orgasmic position, her polished nails on her nipple), but we pretend that these are harmless or an inevitable part of modern life, and that children's behaviour is not affected by any of this. We are like those hot young things who emerge from their clubs, fornicate without protection because that is cool, and then are shocked to see the results of surreptitiously-bought pregnancy test kits.

The day my daughter was born, I felt indescribably lucky. I had a son, and had longed for a girl for years. Today, that joy has been burnt into by insistent fear. Childhood, I am told, now stops at eight. She is a "tweenager" who should be listening to Steps and wearing sexy little numbers bought from Tammy. She doesn't, but how long can I protect her from the monstrous appetites of those who see her as their next commercial G-spot?

Marcia Herman-Giddens, a respected American researcher into children's behaviour, believes that this external Babel is affecting young children physiologically, and that it may even be bringing down the age of adolescence. Is it really the best we can do, in the face of all this chaos, to offer a morning-after pill?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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