Hugh Reilly: Contraception plan for schools easy to swallow

Clinicians have questioned the SNP's "idiosyncratic" approach to sexual health in schools
Clinicians have questioned the SNP's "idiosyncratic" approach to sexual health in schools
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A panel of medical experts has sparked debate by calling for the morning-after pill and condoms to be available to school pupils in Scotland.

Currently, sexually active teenagers seeking help are invited by school nurses to avail themselves of sexual health clinic facilities.

In a written submission to Holyrood’s health committee, the Scottish Sexual Health lead clinicians group questioned why some aspects of sexual health were part of the government’s public health agenda in schools and not others. They pointed to the idiosyncrasy of vaccinating teenage girls against a sexually transmitted infection (human papillomavirus, HPV) but offering no in-school prevention against other types of sexually transmitted diseases.

The health professionals believe that government and local councils shy away from setting up sexual health units in schools because they are anxious to avoid confrontation with parents and religious bodies. However, by its stance over gay marriage, say the medical people, the Scottish Government has shown a political will to face down such opposition.

Dishing out emergency contraception in schools is undoubtedly controversial, but something revolutionary needs to be done to reduce pregnancies in the under-16s age group. Despite implementing a series of strategies, the government target figure of 6.8. per 1,000 was missed, the rate staying at 7.1, the same as in 2009. Predictably, the Catholic Church voiced outrage at the notion of making comprehensive schools a one-stop shop for contraception merchandise. Its spokesman, John Deighan, said: “Sexual behaviour is something for adults – children deserve to have a childhood.” Ideally, teenagers would be playing on roundabouts and climbing trees, but the harsh reality is that many will be on the internet watching dodgy films or on social media uploading and downloading “interesting” pictures.

As if that weren’t enough, there is tremendous peer pressure to do “it”. A schoolgirl who caves in to a demand for unprotected sex and fears she is pregnant will be all over the place. Presently, the only way out of her nightmare is to arrive at a health clinic she found on Google and ask for a morning-after pill.

If such a drug were to be made available in schools, the lassie could confide in a teacher she trusts who in turn could arrange a swift meeting with the school nurse. I believe that having emergency contraception available in familiar surroundings would encourage panicking girls to come forward in order to avoid the stigma of being a “gymslip mum”.

Patient confidentiality means that a school could not inform parents of any medical intervention without the say-so of the girl. I imagine most mums and dads would be horrified to discover that their daughter had been given a potent pill without their knowledge.

However, as the law stands, a child under 16 is legally able to grant consent to undergo a medical procedure after being informed of any possible side-effects.

Hopefully, school nurses would be able to communicate with current dispensers of emergency contraception – Well Woman clinics, sexual health clinics and pharmacies – to ascertain that the pill is not being used as a regular prophylactic. Also, it would be vital that school medical professionals had access to the schoolgirl’s family medical records to understand any underlying conditions that may put the teenager at greater risk.

Those who disagree with the proposals need to come up with alternative forms of action to curb teenage pregnancies. Church leaders telling youngsters to abstain from sexual activity are definitely not preaching to the choir. The world has moved on since the days when premarital sex was regarded as a mortal sin and hoping for a return to a repressed sexual society is wishful thinking.

The reluctance to make condoms more readily available is hard to comprehend. Condoms prevent the spreads of STIs and are vital in the fight to stop unwanted pregnancies. Having condoms and morning-after pills in schools will not lead to the promiscuity Armageddon or Sodom and Gomorrah High Schools predicted by religious zealots.

It is a mark of a grown-up society that we are even considering such a radical solution to reduce the demand for teenage maternity wear.