In a written submission to a Holyrood investigation into the country’s high rate of teenage pregnancies, an influential organisation of NHS experts tackling the problem argues that school nurses should be able to dispense emergency contraception and condoms.
The Scottish Sexual Health Lead Clinicians Group also accuses ministers of taking moral stands on issues such as gay marriage but of “running scared” of similar action on contraceptive methods that would make an impact on society.
Current Scottish Government policy does not support the provision of the morning-after pill in schools, but MSPs will now consider the group’s proposal.
“The potential for the school nursing service to make an impact is restricted by lack of finance for posts and also timidity on the part of government and local authorities,” says the group in a submission to an inquiry launched by the Scottish Parliament’s health committee.
“Why is emergency contraception not available in schools? Why are condoms and contraception not accessible?”
The paper backed up its argument by pointing out that teenage schoolgirls in Scotland were already being vaccinated against the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus.
“Vaccination against a sexually-transmitted infection [HPV] is given in schools, why can’t pregnancy and other STIs be prevented?
“The Scottish Government is prepared to make a stand on controversial subjects like gay marriage, why does it run scared of its critics on the subject of making emergency contraception available in schools?”
The group added: “The Scottish Government should give consideration to the availability of certain interventions in schools, particularly in rural areas and areas with higher teenage pregnancies, including the availability of emergency hormonal contraception in schools.”
This week, the health committee will resume its investigation, which was launched to see if enough was being done to tackle a teenage pregnancy rate that is one of the highest in western Europe. Figures published in June last year showed a key Scottish Government target for reducing pregnancies among under-16s was missed.
Ministers had hoped to cut the pregnancy rate in this age group to 6.8 pregnancies per 1,000 girls by 2010. But the pregnancy rate for that year was 7.1 per 1,000 – the same as it had been in 2009.
NHS Fife had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in 2010 for the under-16 age group at 9.2 per 1,000 girls and in the under-18 age group at 47.7 per 1,000. The paper’s lead author was Dr Ruth Holman, a consultant in sexual and reproductive healthcare with NHS Ayrshire and Arran and the chair of the Lead Clinicians Group.
The group said that sexual health doctors felt that they were “firefighting – struggling with crisis situations rather than prevention” and argued that there ought to be better sex education for youngsters and more support for young mothers.
Richard Simpson, a Labour member of the health committee and a former GP, said that the committee would look at the proposal.
“Obviously, the use of emergency contraception is an important thing,” he said.
“We don’t necessarily think there is a need for it to be available in schools, but there should be really good signposts and proper advice about where it is available.
“Availability in schools is something that we will have to look at as a committee.”
But the group’s submission drew an angry response from the Catholic Church, which claimed that the call to make the morning-after pill more readily available was “outrageous” and “irresponsible”.
John Deighan, the parliamentary officer for the Catholic Church in Scotland, said: “They are promoting the behaviour that causes the problem and this simply pours more fuel on the flames.
“Children are already being sexualised to an outrageous extent and not enough effort is being made to discourage it.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It is not policy that emergency contraception should be provided in schools, but young people can receive advice and be signposted to other places where emergency contraception may be available if appropriate.”