From across the Atlantic, we at British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) have been watching with interest the American debate over Plan B. This debate reflects the same kind of mixed messages about emergency contraception pills (ECPs) that are received by women in Britain. On one hand, women are encouraged to be responsible for controlling their fertility through the use of contraception, and hormonal contraception is accepted as a fact of life. On the other, the provision of ECPs – in Britain, usually referred to as the ‘morning-after pill’ – tends to be seen as controversial. Some hold religious objections to the morning-after pill; others are reluctant to champion its use by women, in case this is seen to imply that ‘unprotected sex’ is not a problem.
BPAS is a charity committed to helping women prevent unwanted pregnancies and, should they need to, end them with abortion. We believe that the provision of the means of fertility regulation, including emergency contraception, is neither bad nor neutral ethically – it constitutes a moral ‘good’.
Contraception allows women to exercise their conscience in relation to pregnancy – by choosing whether, when and with whom to have children. In doing so it allows women to take responsibility for themselves and the creation and sustenance of their families. This recognition of ‘decision-making capacity’ and ‘choice’ acknowledges women as moral agents in shaping their own lives and those around them, who are capable of making decisions even when they are in circumstances not of their choosing.
The concept of family planning, and the technological means by which this is done, recognises that the people who should make decisions about their reproductive and sexual lives are those most affected by them. That is individual women, who will live with the consequences of decisions they make.
One of the defining features of humankind is our capacity to make conscious plans, which we do by considering the consequences of different choices; by making decisions and acting on them accordingly. The decision of whether and when to have a child is one of the most meaningful we can make, and we are fortunate to live in an era where science gives us the means to act on those decisions, and society accepts that we should be able to access those means. For this reason, attempts to restrict access to emergency contraception – as with contraception, and abortion – are, in our view, wrong both from a pragmatic and from a moral standpoint.
In pragmatic terms, it makes perfect sense for women to have ready access to the emergency contraceptive pill as a back-up to their regular form of contraception, for moments when regular contraception fails or where couples fail to use it. ECPs are safe, they work, and they provide women with a much-needed reassurance that one incident of ‘unprotected’ sex need not have life-changing consequences, unless women want it to. More importantly, it is morally right that society should do all it can to allow women to exercise the choice over whether and when to have a child. Those who believe in Divine plans will not agree with this position, but those who believe that humans can and should plan their lives should surely accept that it is better that a baby is received as a chosen blessing, rather than as some kind of punishment for a moment of unplanned passion.