The morning-after pill is now being given out for free by pharmacies in Wales in an attempt to reduce the number of teen pregnancies, although emergency contraceptives will still cost 25 pounds (around $40) elsewhere in Britain. The pills will even be available to girls under the age of 16, leaving the question of whether they can get the contraceptives to the pharmacist. Predictably, this has raised a storm of controversy about whether this will simply encourage more irresponsible attitudes toward sex.
Overall, I support any measure that makes it easier for women, especially young women, to access emergency contraceptives. But critics are raising a number of fair concerns about this policy – the first of which is the fact that the morning-after pill does not prevent sexually transmitted diseases. As a Cardiff doctor pointed out, the burden should not be on pharmacists to explain to young women that although emergency contraceptives do help prevent pregnancy, they do not guard against the other risks associated with unprotected sex.
In this sense, it also makes sense to make birth control pills and condoms free as well, not just emergency contraceptives. And one would hope that the Welsh government would also step up sex education in their schools, so teens had not only access to contraceptives, but the knowledge that they needed to make responsible decisions.
Another troubling element of this new policy is the fact that pharmacists are left to conduct consultations with girls under the age of 16 who are seeking emergency contraceptives, and that the decision to dispense the medication is solely in their hands. This is decidedly not pharmacists’ jobs, and could result in incredible abuses of power – pharmacists could shame girls about their decision to have sex, or neglect (as the doctor pointed out) to impart important advice about sexual decision-making.
This doesn’t mean, though, that access to emergency contraceptives “encourages men to see young women as sex objects, who can be exploited without responsibility for the consequences,” as a spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children warned. Rather, the Welsh government just has a responsibility to make sure that teens (and adults as well) have access to all kinds of contraceptives, and that they have the knowledge necessary to use these resources.
Photo from Flickr.