Selling the Pill to Tweens Can't Replace Sex Ed in the UK

A report by the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has recommended that girls under the age of 13 should be able to buy the contraceptive pill over-the-counter, without the consent of their general practitioner or parents.

The plan is controversial because many believe it could lead to girls becoming sexually active at a younger age. However, if we oppose the sale of the pill, we would be guilty of burying our heads in the sand and ignoring the fact that teenage pregnancies do happen. Something needs to be done about teenage pregnancies, and offering to sell the pill over-the-counter only scratches the surface of the problem.

Although the Office of National Statistics in the UK records that pregnancy rates have decreased in recent years, the UK still has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe and, according to a UNICEF report, has the second highest teenage pregnancy rate in the world behind the US.

The plan of selling the pill to teenagers without consent was piloted in two areas of London with the highest teenage pregnancy rate. After the scheme was implemented the areas saw a significant drop in the use of emergency contraception, and the UNICEF report suggests widening the scheme to girls as young as 13-years-old.

However, five pharmacies in Southwark and Lambeth (two areas of London) have offered oral contraception without a prescription, and are still seeing the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Europe. There are no proven statistics that suggest that this pilot program for easy access to the pill has done anything to lessen teenage pregnancies.  

Critics have been cynical about this plan. Not only do they argue that it will encourage young girls to become more sexually active, but they also argue that there could be an increase in the number of teenagers (girls and boys) contracting sexually transmitted infections or diseases.

We need to acknowledge the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, which the pill does not provide protection for. Just providing one form of contraception isn’t enough. Some people may even think that using the pill removes the need for barrier protection, like condoms, which are more effective in reducing the risk of STIs.

Tabloids have been quick to jump on this idea, publishing stories about the implications that taking the pill can have, and highlighting just how badly equipped the UK is when it comes to dealing with sex education.

The government in the UK needs to improve how sex education is being taught in schools. Under the current system, sex education in England and Wales is not compulsory, and parents can even choose to withdraw their children from sex education classes, and lessons on contraception is discretionary.

This is a failure in comparison to other countries with lower teenage pregnancy rates, such as France, where schools are required to provide 30 to 40 hours of sex education; or Germany where sex education is a governmental duty.

All of this controversy in the UK, is symptomatic of the UK's discomfort with talking about sex. Very rarely will you see a commercial for condoms on TV, and it is rarer still to see a commercial about the dangers of unprotected sex. 

 A good example of this discomfort could be seen last January when a bill calling for compulsory abstinence lessons for teenage girls was withdrawn before the Members of Parliament even had a chance to debate it. The bill was widely criticised by feminist and pro-choice groups for singling out girls. While I disagree with the bill in principle, at least it was the first step in raising the issue of underage sex; I see no problem with debating a bill with the prospect of adding amendments to it.

Even if this scheme to allow over-the-counter pill access is shelved, it doesn’t mean that teenagers under 16 will stop having sex. As the saying goes, "it is better to be safe than sorry," and if this scheme is to go ahead it needs to be accompanied by more education on alternative forms of contraception. The risks and consequences of sex need to be properly addressed by the UK government.