Giving girls as young as 13 the contraceptive Pill without their parents' knowledge is yet another hugely misguided policy. Time for a change of approach?

Should girls as young as 13 be given the Pill by pharmacies without their parents’ knowledge? This recent item in the news has been given a reasoned and sensible answer by Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, in the Times. Reading the points he argues makes one stand back and look at the way society now treats our young people – and to be appalled by it.

As Wells points out, in the past there were many restraints on underage sexual activity for a good reason: sex, as society once realised, was linked to bonding, babies, the raising of children, providing for them and establishing a family. Cut free from such links unrestricted sexual behaviour would mean social mayhem – the situation we are now in. Wells cites all the ways that society has systematically turned against the wisdom and caution of previous generations:

• Explicit sex education at ever-younger ages in schools which has undermined the natural caution of young children
• Turning a blind eye to “the age of consent”
• The ready availability of contraception and the “morning-after” pill
• Confidentiality policies that mean young girls need not worry about their parents’ response – a brake on behaviour for earlier generations

As Norman Wells points out, to make the Pill available to girls under the age of 16 at chemists’ outlets would save them the embarrassment of having to see a doctor; in other words, sexual licence at an even younger stage of emotional immaturity would be encouraged.

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I know the Government states that these hugely misguided policies will lower the statistics of teenage pregnancies but I do wonder if ministers really believe this. All the evidence is against them and always has been. As Wells indicates in his article, research published in the Journal of Health Economics in 2011 concluded that schemes to provide emergency birth control to under-16s at pharmacies did not cut teenage pregnancy rates and “led to increases in diagnoses of STIs”. So not only are we encouraging teenagers to engage in irresponsible sexual activity but we are also making it more likely that they will have long-term problems of infertility at a later stage when they want to settle down and start a family.

Is this what the Government really wants for young people? To engage in sexual relations when they feel like it, as long as they are “protected”, without any regard for the possibility of damage to health, physical and mental? Wells concludes his article: “If health authorities are interested in reducing underage teenage conception, abortion and STI rates, they should look for ways to discourage young people from engaging in sexual activity. The last thing they should be doing is fuelling the flames of a sexual health crisis with schemes that treat parents, the law and basic moral principles with contempt.”

I am intrigued by his use of the phrase “basic moral principles”. What are these and who, outside older people or those who have a religious framework to their lives, understands them anymore? It suggests we all agree on certain broad moral assumptions – such as that sexual activity should be discouraged in schoolchildren because they are too volatile, impulsive and immature to understand its repercussions. But we don’t.

People shake their heads when this subject comes under discussion and say “It’s too late. You can’t turn the clock back”. You can’t reproduce the conditions of society 50 years ago; that’s true. But you can still learn from enduring lessons of the past. If you are the Government, with the power to enact laws for the protection and good of the citizenry, you could at least be honest enough to acknowledge that the sexually permissive policies of recent decades have completely failed our teenagers and that it might be time to explore alternative policies.

Peter Maurin, the friend and idiosyncratic mentor of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker newspaper in the States, used to say that laws are in place to encourage people to avoid the bad. Our society positively encourages our youth to do the opposite.

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