Morning-after pill made available to under-16s
New guidance will mean that EllaOne, a form of emergency contraception, is available to girls under 16 in pharmacies for the first time. Can young people be trusted to use it responsibly?
Last year, 24,306 girls under the age of 18 became pregnant in the UK, 4,648 of whom were younger than 16, the legal age of sexual consent. For many, the news came as a nasty surprise — over half of the girls affected had abortions.
But the European medicines agency hopes a licence change which they announced yesterday will make it easier for teenage girls to avoid unwanted pregnancies. EllaOne, a form of emergency contraception commonly known as the ‘morning-after pill’, will now be sold to girls under 16 in pharmacies across the continent.
EllaOne is a single pill which is taken orally and releases a hormone. It prevents or delays ovulation (when an egg is released from the ovary) and so substantially reduces the chances of a pregnancy if taken up to five days after sex has taken place. But it is more likely to work if taken as soon as possible and statistically less effective than other means of contraception. It may also cause side effects, such as inducing sickness or affecting the menstrual cycle.
Scientists first considered that hormones could prevent unwanted pregnancies in the 1920s, when vets used oestrogen in dogs and horses which were pregnant against their owners’ wishes. Hormonal contraceptives for humans followed in the 1960s, when the contraceptive pill became common in western societies and the morning-after pill was first successfully tested. More recently, campaigners have called for easier access to emergency contraception and clinical guidance issued in the UK last year said that under-25s, including girls under 16, should be able to access it more readily.
But girls below the age of consent who need the morning-after pill will still face obstacles. In the UK, they will need to pay the potentially prohibitive cost of £34.95 and convince a pharmacist that they are ‘Gillick competent’, meaning they have sufficient understanding of the consequences of their decision. They will also be asked whether they are willing for their parents to know that they have had unprotected sex.
Groups such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) say any measures which make it easier to access the morning-after pill are welcome. When a frightened young girl or woman is faced with the life-changing prospect of becoming pregnant, the only thing that should matter is whether or not she wants it to be so. The morning-after pill was invented for this reason.
But others stress that it should be seen a last resort. It is called emergency contraception for a reason. It is less effective and healthy than other methods and it doesn’t prevent sexually transmitted infections. We should be cautious about its use.
- Should it be easier for young girls to get hold of the morning-after pill?
- Do young people understand enough about sex to make informed choices?
- Write a list of things that would worry you if you (or someone you knew) had to take the morning-after pill, and some things that you could do to help to deal with the problem. Discuss what you would do about them in groups.
- Prepare a presentation on the different types of contraception that can be used and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Use the link to the AVERT website to help you.
Some People Say...
“Contraception has made us more responsible.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why wasn’t this in place before?
- Pharmaceutical companies and the bodies who write medical guidelines haven’t been convinced that the drugs were safe to use. Some have also been concerned that easy availability might promote irresponsible behaviour among young people.
- What does this mean for young boys?
- Boys should be aware of the embarrassment and financial penalty that a girl could face if she has to ask for the morning-after pill — not to mention the fact that it isn’t guaranteed to work.
- Aren’t the people who need the morning-after pill just irresponsible?
- Not necessarily. Some of the girls who need it may be the victims of abuse or exploitation. And even people who have taken precautions may need a backup option, for example because a condom splits.
- Another emergency contraceptive pill is Levonelle, which must be taken within three days of sex. But this has not been available in many pharmacies. The European medical agency’s decision is the first blanket licensing which makes clear that pharmacists can give a pill out to any woman or girl of reproductive age.
- In pharmacies
- There are other ways of getting the morning-after pill for those in need of it. Contraceptive clinics, most sexual health clinics and most GP surgeries allow women to access Levonelle free of charge. But these may require an appointment.
- Side effects
- These are not very common, but do occur for some of those who take the morning-after pill. They can include headaches, irregular menstrual bleeding, nausea and sometimes vomiting. Those who vomit within three hours of taking the morning-after pill should get another one.
- Contraceptive pill
- This is a more regular form of contraception, taken daily, which is usually referred to simply as ‘the pill’. Women who wish to use it need a prescription from their GP.