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Contraception has always been a volatile topic in the US, which is why it came as such a surprise that New York health authorities have made Plan-B, the US version of the morning-after pill Levonelle, available in some schools with a reasonable amount of success.
Emergency contraception is not just an issue in the US though; in the UK we’ve also had our fair share of headlines chastising governing bodies and charities for suggesting similar types of programs in schools. Critics would say that we should focus on teaching young people abstinence and that providing the option of emergency contraception will make them more likely to have unprotected sex, thereby placing themselves at risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
However, I don’t see the point of preaching abstinence when most young people in the UK are becoming sexually active at the age of 13. An overwhelming emphasis on abstinence education in schools can also have the opposite effect. According to a controversial 2008 study done in the US, teenage girls who became sexually active at a younger age were more likely to feel depressed. This was largely linked to the fact that they felt guilt about their sexual activity. Although there were many elements open to question in the study, such as why only girls would feel shame about their bodies and why other factors that could be attributed to depression weren’t taken to account, it does illustrate the need for a supportive environment where young people feel that they aren’t completely helpless.
Trying to promote abstinence just wouldn’t work in an environment where teenagers are already exposed to sex. What we really need to be doing is taking steps to help young people become more confident, a confidence which should come from education and empowerment.
It is understandable that parents would be worried about their children and their access to contraception, which is why I am in favour of the way that healthcare authorities in New York approached it. They asked whether parents were comfortable with schools providing these contraceptive services and if they weren’t they could simply opt out. According to reports very few parents actually opted out and there wasn’t any protest. In addition to this,the pilot programme was released in 2011 in 13 schools that didn’t have a nearby sexual health clinic, meaning that it was only implemented in places where there appeared to be a genuine need.
Similarly, this could work in the UK, which is the aim of organisations such as NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), who are trying to provide sexual health services to areas where people face difficulties in accessing them. So perhaps, if parents were to be consulted first, we could avoid controversies, such as was the case when girls in Southampton were provided with contraceptive implants in schools earlier this year.
The fact is, unwanted teenage pregnancies are an issue in the UK and by empowering young girls with effective sex education and the availability of contraception we are providing them with the means to take ownership of their futures and bodies, thereby eliminating one of the root causes which is, in my opinion, a dire lack of self-confidence in our teenagers.