UK Doctors Are Giving Underage Girls the Pill, and That’s Sensible

The UK’s conservative media is up in arms after a new study shows doctors are regularly prescribing the contraceptive pill to girls under the age of 16. Rather than attacking the NHS or individual doctors however, they should be looking at the reality of the situation and the positives this research also highlights.

One in 20 schoolgirls – many as young as 12 – are now being prescribed the contraceptive Pill by GPs without their parents’ knowledge, The Mail on Sunday can reveal,” says the Daily MailThis and similar ledes have popped up throughout the UK’s conservative press this past week.

The Daily Mail continues:

A shock study found that family doctors are handing out the Pill to about 75,000 girls under 16 every year – a jump of 50 per cent in a decade.

Worryingly, parents are unlikely ever to find out because health workers do not have to inform them when they provide contraception to a minor.

Last night, senior Conservative MP Bob Neill called the figures ‘deeply shocking’ and said the practice was ‘destroying’ the childhood of young girls and ‘undermining responsible parents’.

If you sense the distinct aroma of manufactured outrage, that’s because this report is designed to do exactly that. The Mail quickly jumps into parroting what “family groups” (read: religious conservative organizations) are saying about the issue, while skating over the actual details, so here it is:

The research, which was conducted by a team at King’s College London, looked at prescription data and focused on how often young women were being given the Pill by their doctors. The team found that around five percent of girls aged 12-15 were being prescribed the contraceptive pill. That’s an increase from a decade ago when about 3.3 percent were being given the Pill, and an increase that surprised the researchers. However, in real-world terms, the numbers don’t seem as shocking. In fact, the total number of young people on the Pill has only risen from 50,000 to 75,000. Yet, this has been enough to set conservative tongues wagging that doctors are basically going behind parents’ backs to give out the Pill to girls who are under the legal age of sexual consent, which is 16.

The Daily Mail then embarks on listing all the potential long term side-effects that might arise through early use of the Pill. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but it fails to mention that the study notes some of the young women (though not the majority) were using the Pill for other reasons than as a contraceptive method. For example, doctors may prescribe the pill as a means to help young women combat acne and to help regulate other hormone issues.

The Daily Mail’s report also buries until very near the close of the article the fact that teenage pregnancy is at its lowest rate in the UK since records began. The Telegraph, in its breathless number-crunching over official NHS figures on contraceptive use, overlooks this fact almost entirely.

To be clear, the study does indeed call for more careful examination of long-term issues relating to early contraceptive use, and that is a very worthwhile approach. There are also salient concerns over whether young women who are taking the Pill are putting themselves at risk of contracting potentially serious STIs like HIV or whether they are using the contraceptive pill as part of their sexual health care strategy alongside condoms and other methods. Rising STI rates would suggest not, but we don’t have exact figures on this particular issue.

All that said, when the media manufactures outrage like this it relies on one lie: that doctors prescribing contraceptives for young women means the same as them condoning or even enabling sexual activity, or at the very least going behind parents’ backs. Let’s instead look at the reality.

A girl who feels it is time to engage in sex with her partner has gone to the doctor or clinician, or at the very least discussed with a medical professional her desire to start taking the contraceptive pill. That conversation will no doubt have also entailed her doctor telling her about the risks associated with sexual activity early on in life. She has then decided to go ahead regardless.

When we subtract the scaremongering from this scenario what we get is a young teenager, while perhaps embarking on an ill-advised course, behaving responsibly. We also get a doctor, having done their best to advise their patient about the facts of underage sex, behaving ethically and responsibly by enabling the patient to access the precautions she needs to stave off teenage pregnancy. Given that teenage pregnancies often (though not always) present a number of hardships including poverty, a lack of job prospects, and generally a poorer economic outlook, this is a good thing.

As such, far from this rise in under-age contraceptive prescriptions being a negative, when coupled with the low teen pregnancy figures it shows that the system in place is currently working. What’s more, as much as conservative family groups protest that under-age patients can get access to contraceptives without their parents’ consent, this may provide evidence as to why such an allowance is important: If teenagers had to go through their parents to get contraceptives they likely wouldn’t feel able, and teen pregnancy rates would probably rise as a result.

Genevieve Edwards, Marie Stopes UK’s Director of Policy, is quoted by The Independent saying: “Over the last decade teenage pregnancy rates have been falling and are now at a record low. Without the pill, condoms or other longer-acting methods of contraception, sexually active teenagers wouldn’t stop having sex, they’d just be at risk of an unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection.”

There are reasons to be concerned about underage sex, but what we have here is an agenda that is less concerned with the reality of teen sexual activity and more about bullying doctors and demanding a policy change against prescribing contraceptives for under-age girls–but that would only harm young women, not help them. We can do better for them, and it’s through sex education and sexual health facilities that we will really keep our young adults safe and drive down STI numbers.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

56 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey2 years ago

There are health benefits to being on the pill. Better to allow underage girls these advantages plus avoiding unwanted underage pregnancies, which carry serious health risks especially to teenagers.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran2 years ago

noted

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Georgina Elizab McAlliste
.2 years ago

thank you

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Manuela C.
Manuela C2 years ago

The law allows for the prescription of contraceptives to minors and doesn't require parents consent, so...
Oh, but I forgot that pregnant at 12 must be better than on the pill at 12!

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Paulinha Russell
Paulinha R2 years ago

Thank you

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Amanda M.
Amanda M2 years ago

When I was 16, I BEGGED my mother to let me go on the Pill after years of suffering from severe menstrual symptoms and a VERY irregular cycle (I started when I was 10). Unfortunately, she refused, saying "it would turn me into a slut." So I had to suffer for two more years until I was 18 and didn't NEED her damn consent to improve my cycle and therefore my quality of life!

My older daughter is now 13, and while her cycle is WAY more regular than mine was at her age, unfortunately she's also inherited the "killer cramps" that don't respond to prescription-level dosages of OTC ibuprofen unless she's lying down for half the day. I told her that if she wants to go on the Pill to help that issue, she's got the green light from me! No girl or woman should be forced to suffer from menstrual issues like that simply because of the parent's irrational prejudices! That's flat-out barbaric, cruel, and inhumane!

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Danuta Watola
Danuta W2 years ago

Thanks so much for sharing

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Ines W.
Inez w2 years ago

If something is written in the Daily Mail (aka, The Daily Fail) you know this is going to be sensationalist b.s.

Jenn C: I went on the pill aged 13 or 14 (young adults we are referred to in the UK, not CHILDREN) due to VERY painful and heavy menses, and certainly not as I was sexually active (that happened aged 16)

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Cindi S.

All you self-righteous conservatives - would you rather take over the care and education of all the unwanted children these teens are going to produce if they don't get birth control?
I didn't think so.

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