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Plan B Debate: An Epidemiological Approach from Catholic Voices

It can seem that the Catholic Church opposes the recent attempts to increase access to the morning-after pill due to nothing more than religious dogma (as Terry Sanderson commented earlier). I can understand how this attitude pervades when biblical grounds are the sole means of justification.

What is lacking here is the clarity and support provided by current “epidemiological” or population-based evidence, which has put into figures what the Church’s logic and moral rational has been saying for decades.

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 rational 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 use 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.

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.

The Church helps pregnant teenagers, it supports women who are psychologically distressed by a terminated pregnancy, the Church knows and understands these issues. With no surprise has the mounting evidence backed up the Church’s case. Perhaps it is clearer now why Plan A is a more desirable option that Plan B. No one wins with Plan B, except maybe the state when this is a cheaper and somewhat “showier” way of saying it cares.

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.”

About Marianne Neary

Marianne Neary
Marianne Neary is a speaker for Catholic Voices, which started out as a campaign to represent Catholic views more fairly in the media, but which is now "a school of a new Christian humanism; and a laboratory of a new kind of apologetics."Marianne Neary studied Medicine at the University of Cambridge with a Science degree in Physiology, Development and Neuroscience. She is now a Clinical Medical student at University College London's Division of Medicine. As part of the MBPhD Programme, she spends her time in clinical training at University College London Hospital and research at the Medical Research Council's National Institute for Medical Research. Ms Neary is conducting research into metabolic changes in the heart before and after birth, which has implications for high altitude medicine, cot death and heart failure. She also has published research papers in endocrinology, obesity and the evolutionary development of biomineralisation. She writes regularly for “You and Your Hormones” and BioNews, reporting on endocrine diseases and recent developments in genetics, stem cells and reproductive technologies. Her writing has been shortlisted for the Max Perutz and the Guardian Science Writing Prizes, and she has previously won the Society for Endocrinology Writing Prize.

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