Rules relaxed on morning-after pill for teens

New NHS guidance will make emergency contraception more widely available to those under the age of 16. Will it reduce unwanted pregnancies, or simply make young people more reckless?

Ever since the morning-after pill was introduced in the UK in the 1980s, it has steadily become more easily available. First it was sold over the counter at chemists, then over the phone and internet. Now, a new proposal goes one step further.

This week, The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) has produced new NHS guidance that will enable under 25s – including girls under the age of 16 – to obtain the pills before they have sex, rather than after, by allowing them to pre-order them in bulk.

It also suggests that this form of emergency contraception, along with condoms, should be freely available in schools.

If a woman has sex without using contraception, or if a condom breaks during sex, she can lower the chances of becoming pregnant by taking the morning-after pill up to three days after intercourse.

The pills operate either as a contraceptive, by preventing or delaying ovulation, or by preventing an already fertilised egg from implanting on the lining of the womb. Some religious groups say that a fertilised egg is a person, and that the morning-after pill is therefore akin to abortion. This view is currently being challenged in a court case in the US.

Nice has justified its decision by arguing that while the number of under-18s becoming pregnant is falling, England still has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Europe, and measures need to be taken to reduce it further. Nearly half of all pregnancies among 15 to 18-year-olds end in abortion, which can cause considerable emotional distress and costs the NHS over £53m every year.

Thinking it through

What effect will these changes have? Some campaigners and faith groups are firmly opposed to them. They say greater availability of emergency contraception could promote a casual attitude to sex and doubt whether unwanted pregnancies will be reduced. It could also lead young people into underestimating the physical and emotional impact of having sex at an early age, and result in more teenagers having unprotected sex. And this could spark a rise in sexually transmitted diseases, something which the emergency pill does not protect against.

But others argue that giving young people greater access to the morning-after pill will allow them to be safer, particularly as it is more effective the sooner it is taken. Some teenagers find that relying on a chemist can be embarrassing, time-consuming, stressful and expensive. It is undeniable that young people are having sex – nearly a third of both boys and girls in Britain do before the legal age of consent. They should be trusted to make independent choices for themselves, and avoid having to make difficult decisions about abortion.

You Decide

  1. Is it a good idea to give teenagers greater access to emergency contraception?
  2. Do young people have a more casual attitude towards sex than older generations?


  1. In groups, make a list of three good reasons why people have sex, and three bad reasons.
  2. Imagine you write an advice column for a magazine. Write a response to a young female teenager whose boyfriend thinks having unprotected sex will be OK because she can always use the morning-after pill.

Some People Say...

“Young people today are growing up too fast.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is it wrong to have sex before the age of 16?
Technically it is illegal to have sex under the age of 16 in the UK, and to do so is a criminal offence. However, many young people do, and if you and your partner are of a similar age, it is unlikely that you will be punished. But sex can be physically and emotionally traumatic if you’re not ready for it, or if you have it with someone you don’t know well or don’t trust. Making safe, informed decisions, and knowing what contraceptive options are available to you is of paramount importance.
Will my parents find out if I get emergency contraception?
Health professionals have a duty to provide oral emergency contraception to girls under 16 without parental knowledge or consent, and can only alert your parents is they believe your safety is at risk.

Word Watch

Ovulation is when one or more eggs are released from a woman’s ovaries into the fallopian tube. This happens each month, and if one of the eggs encounters a male sperm, the uterine lining will thicken and the egg will become fertilised, eventually resulting in pregnancy. If no conception occurs, the lining of the uterus will break down, resulting in menstruation.
When a pregnancy is terminated either by a medical or surgical procedure. In the UK, an abortion can usually only be carried out during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy.
Scientists are arguing that the morning-after pill blocks fertilisation from happening in the first place, rather than preventing an already fertilised egg from implantation in the lining of the uterus.
Court case
The US Supreme Court is currently deciding whether private corporations should be allowed to refuse contraception to their women employees if it violates their owners’ religious beliefs.The Obamacare healthcare reforms require for-profit companies to provide free contraception.
Professor James Trussell, of Princeton University, has stated that there is no evidence that women with access to advance emergency contraception are more likely to have unprotected sexual intercourse because they regard the morning-after pill as a safety net. But in reality, it is important to understand that the morning-after pill does not have a 100% success rate.

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