Prescription Only Medicines (Human Use) Amendment (No. 3) Order 2000
Baroness Walmsley (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I must confess that the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, leaves me somewhat puzzled. I believe that I live in the real world. In the world where I live, people of all ages have sexual relationships. In the world where I live, these days most couples take responsibility for their own fertility. They take advantage of the fabulous advances which have occurred in medical science over the past 50 years and use the hormonal and barrier products which ensure that, when they have a child, it is a wanted child. Surely that is what we all want: that every child is a wanted child, born into a home where it will be loved and looked after properly.
However, in the real world where I live, things sometimes go wrong with the normal methods of contraception used by responsible people. Condoms split or come off; women forget to take their pills; or they may be sick and lose the pill. Human beings are not perfect. In those situations, surely a responsible, mature woman must not be condemned to bear a child which she does not want simply because she cannot obtain the help that she wants easily and readily. Of course not.
In the real world where I live, young people are very street-wise. Although there are shortcomings in our provision of sex education, most young people know that if they have unprotected sex they are in danger of pregnancy and infection--dangerous infections which can kill. Fortunately, every woman who is in a sexual relationship today can readily obtain contraceptive advice and treatment without undue cost.
But--and this is a big "but"--people sometimes behave under the influence of powerful chemicals which can interfere with their normal good judgment. No, I do not mean alcohol, Ecstasy or any similar drug; I refer to testosterone and oestrogen. Those chemicals are incredibly powerful and are particularly plentiful when young people may not yet be used to their effect. Therefore, should we be trying to punish women of all ages who suspend their normal good judgment or have an accident by forcing them to bear children they do not want by taking away the help that they need? That would be the effect of the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, if it were carried today.
We have heard that we in this country have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe. How can that be when we have sex education and free family planning facilities? We seem to have done everything to inform, advise and supply treatment, yet still these tragedies happen. Well, we have not done quite everything. One thing we have not done is to make provision for the accidents, the unplanned errors of judgment and the coercion and abuse situation--until now. Now we have a weapon which should help so long as it is made easily available at no undue cost.
In doing so, we may also be able to reduce the number of abortions. Recently, evidence has been published showing that 90 per cent of pregnancies that were terminated could have been prevented by emergency contraception, and 70 per cent of women seeking abortion would have used emergency contraception if they had known about it and known where to obtain it quickly.
Some people who oppose the availability of this medicine over the counter believe that it may lead to irresponsible attitudes to sex. This is nonsense. Those who say so have not done their homework. Recent studies have shown that only four per cent of users wanted the product more than twice a year.
It is obvious to any woman why that is. Frequent use will disrupt the normal pattern of periods and there is nothing women hate more than periods that have gone haywire. It drives them mad; it cramps their style. If we do not know that, the advertisers of sanitary protection certainly do because they base their advertisements on the fact. Women who acknowledge they are at risk of an unwanted pregnancy and take action are to be commended, not stigmatised. They deserve the safeguards which have been put in place by the Government.
There is one more thing we could do, and I wish we would. We could stop talking about sex as if it were some terrible immoral activity that causes untold harm to society and start accepting it as normal human behaviour, We should learn to discuss it with our children openly, frankly and without embarrassment. As long as it is something hidden and "naughty", children will want to do it. And they may want to do it before they are ready for it, understand it or are prepared to deal with its consequences. What we should be doing today is saying to the Government, "Well done, keep going, extend the arrangements that make the product free to those for whom cost might be a barrier to getting help."
I welcome the checks on pharmacies carried out recently by some members of the press to ensure that pharmacists are following the guidelines. But I have to say that it is much more of a tragedy for a 15 year-old girl to have a baby than to have a pill that she should not have had. These tests, one hopes, will put pharmacists on their mettle and ensure that they follow the guidelines conscientiously. None of them wants to be exposed by the Daily Mail. I also welcome the fact that Superdrug has shelved the idea of selling the product over the Internet. The safeguards and advice available through this method are just not good enough.
One of the most important aspects of advice given by pharmacists and nurses is that unprotected sex can lead to dangerous infections as well as pregnancy. Most young people know this very well and take appropriate precautions. However, there is no evidence that the availability of this product will make women so careless of their own health that they will take dangerous risks.
What is important now is that the properties and availability of this product are made part of an integrated sex education programme for both adults and schoolchildren which informs but does not judge, which protects but does not control, which understands but does not patronise.