Many years ago now, when news of female sterilisation first came out, Catholic priests in Puerto Rico and other Catholic countries preached from their pulpits against women being sterilised. As a result many more women learned that sterilisation existed, and many went out from church asking where to get it. In effect, the church gave family planning free advertising space by opposing it. Recently, the Daily Mail and others who rant against emergency contraception and abortion have played a similar role.
The British pregnancy advisory service (Bpas) received widespread coverage for their Christmas morning-after pill campaign, in which they offer to send women who request it free emergency contraception if they phone in and discuss it with a nurse. This campaign represents several major advances in support of women who may be having sex without using a regular contraceptive method, but do not want to get pregnant. First, Bpas are making the service available by phone in advance of the “emergency” nature of the need. Thus, just as we keep pain medication in the medicine cabinet in case we get a headache, women are being encouraged to have morning-after pills on hand, in case they need them. Second, they are making the pills free when many chemists charge £25 for one dose, which many young and unemployed women would find prohibitive, and the phoneline will be open when GPs and chemists are closed. Third, they are able to broach regular contraceptive use with the women who phone and encourage them to start regular method use.
The morning-after pill has been available over the counter from chemists without a prescription for over-16s since 2001. So all the palaver about Bpas suddenly making it as easy as dialling for a pizza is silly. In any case, if you’ve had unprotected sex, the morning-after pill will help you far more than pizza. There are people who simply don’t want any form of birth control to be easily accessible and who still claim that emergency contraception (and abortion) promote promiscuity, just as their anti-abortion forbears claimed about the contraceptive pill and female sterilisation in their day. In the end, it’s sex they’re against. Perhaps Nadine Dorries should try putting that on prescription!
A Cochrane review in 2010 found that women who received an advance supply of the morning-after pill had the same chance of becoming pregnant as those who did not have early access to the method. However, these pills do prevent pregnancy when they are used. It seems that many of the women who have unprotected sex and get pregnant without wanting to are not the ones actually obtaining and using the morning-after pill. Perhaps Bpas’ campaign, with the help of all the media who have given it space, will help to change that. According to the Bpas press office, 1,000 women phoned in the first 48 hours. If many more women find out about this method and start to keep a dose or two at home in case they need it, there is a far better chance they can avoid an unwanted pregnancy.
Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary who doesn’t want responsibility for the NHS, told the Daily Telegraph that he would prefer there to be face-to-face counselling. Is that actually necessary when only a few questions need answering? And, someone has to seek face-to-face counselling first. For those who don’t, or won’t, this can only be a good thing.
Indeed, helplines for health-related issues are becoming more common and their value is clear. The FPA, for example, has run a helpline for years and has an excellent record of informing and referring for services for family planning and sexual health. The new aspect of Bpas’ campaign, sending the pills through the post, is like ordering something on the internet. Why not?
As for the under-16s, let’s get real. The under-16s who have sex may only do so very irregularly. But if they’re going to have sex, they need access to contraception. The morning-after pill may not be their best option in the long run, but it should be there if they need it.
We need contraception to be in the news more often – it’s good news. I applaud Bpas and all the media who have publicised their campaign. Jingle pills indeed! Happy holidays!
Marge Berer is the founding editor of Reproductive Health Matters, chair of the Steering Committee of the International Consortium for Medical Abortion, and a member of Voice for Choice, a coalition of pro-choice organisations in the UK. She was the first chairwoman of the Gender Advisory Panel, WHO Department of Reproductive Health and Research, from 1996 to 2001, and a member of the International Women’s Advisory Panel of the International Planned Parenthood Federation from 1993 to 1998. She edited a book in 1991-93 on women and HIV, sexual and reproductive health. She has been an advocate for abortion rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights since 1976, and has given numerous presentations and written many papers on these issues.