This is how the apparently logical/scientific argument goes: Teenagers keep getting pregnant, and thus having more abortions and unwanted babies. So if we give them more drugs to stop the pregnancies, and include the morning-after pill in the package, the pregnancies will decrease.
This kind of unquestioned argumentation colours many of our opinions, and drives public policy. But it’s not empirically true. It’s bad science.
Marianne Neary explains why. She examines some of the epidemiological or ‘population-based’ evidence:
The morning-after pill was introduced to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, yet subsequent abortion rates have continued to increase unabated. The morning-after pill was then made available over-the-counter to over 16s in the UK in 2001, again with the rationale that the ease of access would curb unplanned pregnancy. Yet there was still no effect on the ever-increasing abortion rates.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has launched an online campaign this month to make the morning-after pill freely available in advance via the post. Randomised controlled trials investigating whether advance provision of the drug reduces the numbers of unplanned pregnancies have shown no such effect; in fact they show that women increase usage of the morning after pill and some studies even suggest that normal contraception is compromised. A study published earlier this year by Nottingham University found that the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases amongst teens was increased in association with local authorities increasing their access to the drug.
What we see is an effect known as “risk compensation” or “behavioural disinhibition”: where a safety net (a Plan ‘B’) is provided – in the form of abortion and the morning-after pill – “risky” sexual behaviour then increases as a result. We are apparently in a lose-lose situation […]
Professor David Paton, Nottingham University, reports to ScienceDaily in January 2011: “Our study illustrates how government interventions can sometimes lead to unfortunate unintended consequences. The fact that STI diagnoses increased in areas with Emergency Birth Control schemes [schemes increasing access of the morning-after pill to teenagers] will raise questions over whether these schemes represent the best use of public money.”
Neary also goes beyond the scientific analysis to look at some of the broader cultural issues involved:
Instead of tackling the root of the problem, by promoting fidelity and faithfulness, campaigns brandish the word “sex” in fairy lights, framed by the slogan, “Are you feeling turned on this Christmas?” advertising the online access to the morning after pill (BPAS December 2011). The U.S. is currently in debate whether it should allow underage girls to obtain the pill over-the-counter. I think society owes an apology to the girl who winds up pregnant at 14 when she’s bombarded with adverts trivialising sex, when a boy uses the easy access to the morning-after pill as a persuasive device and when the government makes a public statement that casual sex at any age is normal behaviour.
Reporting to the BBC, Ann Furedi adequately epitomises society’s backward attitude towards unplanned pregnancy: “Unintended pregnancy and abortion will always be facts of life because women want to make sure the time is right for them to take on the important role of becoming a parent. Abortion statistics are reflective of women’s very serious consideration regarding that significant role within their current situation.”
While the voices of “Plan B” advocates are louder, couples are increasingly exposing themselves to sexually transmitted disease by engaging in unprotected sex, more women are taking the morning-after pill (a mega-dose of female hormone) when the long-term health consequences are unknown. Perhaps one of the most pressing issues in the US and UK now with the increased availability of the morning-after pill under scrutiny, is that underage girls could get hold of it without face-to-face contact with their Doctor. The latter serves to flag underlying problems which can be discussed and most importantly, keeping a medical record of who is taking it and how often can potentially flag cases of sexual abuse in underage girls.