This week the usual suspects have been doing their familiar red alert routine over teen access to contraception, and, more specifically, the right to access it without parental consent.
This isn’t a new story; it keeps cropping up, like garden weeds, or an ulcer. Here’s the latest version of it: using Freedom of Information laws, a survey by the Daily Telegraph has found that school nurses have given “implants or jabs” to girls aged 13-16 “more than 900 times in the past two years.” That’s it.
Now, there are many, like Dr Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, who believes giving out the pill “behind parents’ backs” is “unprofessional, irresponsible and morally wrong”.
Or Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, who believes it “devalues sex” and “makes it like an ordinary, everyday thing like going to have a McDonald’s.” (I suspect that eating McDonalds every single day would actually be worse for you than having safe, consensual, legal sex every day, but let’s leave that to one side.)
And then there’s the Christian Institute, who report how Ann Allen, from the Family Education Trust, complains “parents have to pick up the pieces from this kind of behaviour” (behaviour? Stomach cramps?), how the Scottish Tory health spokesman worries about “breeding complacency” over safe sex (it doesn’t say exactly how access to information and health care will do this), and how the Roman Catholic Church worries about giving “a green light to promiscuity”.
I must admit, the likes of the Christian Institute in particular do make me chuckle a bit. One minute they are defending B&B owners Mr and Mrs Wilkinson’s right to discriminate against gay people in the furious battle for personal freedom against the state. The next minute they are concerned that the state isn’t handing your medical records out to others without your consent.
Because like it or not, that is what we’re talking about here. Young people – yes, even female ones - have the right to bodily autonomy. And they have a right to confidential medical services, too.
Sadly, not every young person wanting or needing sexual health care has a family with whom they can discuss it. Perhaps their parents are strongly religious, even oppressive. Perhaps they have been a victim of abuse or rape; perhaps from a family member. Perhaps they are at risk of honour violence.
And perhaps – as is common – they want to use the pill for irregular or agonising periods, polycystic ovarian syndrome, or even severe acne.
In fact, if you account for the fairly reasonable assumption that a sizeable chunk of those girls are accessing pills and jabs for health reasons, as opposed to wanting to leap on the milkman when he comes round for some wild, consequence free sex – the worst kind women can be having, if you’re a social conservative, it seems – then “900 times in the past two years” doesn’t even sound that many.
And note the rather specific, cautious wording: it doesn’t say 900 different girls have accessed the pill. Given that the article doesn’t exactly seem to be, shall we say, overly worried about minimising parental alarm, if the survey found 900 different girls had all been given implants or jabs, surely we would hear about it?
What would I say to a parent worried by this story? Worried that their teenager might be having sex or using contraceptives “behind their back”? I say, quite simply, talk to your bloody kid! Why don’t you trust your daughter to talk to you? What kind of relationship do you have, exactly?
Children are not things; you do not own them. You don’t have automatic rights to access information about their life and control what they do with their bodies. Involve yourself in your child’s life. Facilitate a dialogue. If they trust you, they will talk to you honestly and answer your questions. They will ask your opinion. They will value it. And if you treat sex like a shameful thing; treat their body and its habits as something dirty? Well, then they will probably lie to you.
If you have a healthy, positive relationship with your children, then the promise of confidentiality, given by qualified nursing professionals, is not about you, and will probably not affect you. It is about the parent who kicks their daughter out for having an abortion, or kills her and dumps her in a suitcase for kissing a boy. And if you do have the kind of relationship with your kids where they can’t discuss their own body and health with you, then maybe you shouldn’t be blaming the school nurse or the nanny state for it. Maybe you should take some – what do the social conservatives keep calling it? Ah yes – personal responsibility.
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