Verity Johnson: Prevention better than the benefit

Giving contraceptive help to young teens shows compassion.

The high price of emergency contraception punishes young girls for one mistake. Photo / Getty Images
The high price of emergency contraception punishes young girls for one mistake. Photo / Getty Images

When I meet new people I always try to impress them with how tough I am; it hides the fact that I'm so cowardly Dr Who scares me.

One of my favourite ways of impressing people with my hardness is to tell them that at my school in England, I was one of five virgins in my Year 8 class.

It's true. I was. And the story gets me a gold star for being from the estate, yo.

The story itself is shocking, but New Zealand is not going to be outshone by England. According to the online New Zealand encyclopedia Te Ara, in 2006 our teen pregnancy rate was second in the world, beaten only by the US. Fame at last, no?

So when I heard that the Taranaki District Health Board is considering making the emergency contraceptive pill free for girls aged 12 and upwards I couldn't share in the outpouring of outrage. I thought it was about bloody time.

New Zealand has a high rate for teenage sex. In 2005, research showed 20 per cent of 14 year olds were sexually active, and the rates of teenagers under 14 having sex have also increased. According to Te Ara 50 per cent of teenagers (17 and above) are sexually active.

I think we can all agree that 12 year old mums are a bad thing. At 12, I thought Durex was a brand of toilet paper.

So if younger teenagers are having sex, isn't it a good thing that we're making contraception available to young teenagers? That way they don't become mothers.

And, as the Ministry of Health published, younger adolescents are less likely to use contraception when having sex. Logically, if young teens are having unprotected sex, we need to maximise the opportunities for them to avoid pregnancy by promoting the emergency contraceptive pill.

Last year, the MidCentral District Health Board - which covers Palmerston North - made the ECP free to women under 25. The move was followed by a 7.5 per cent reduction in abortions.

When the Auckland DHB tried the same, the reduction in abortion numbers was 13 per cent. So there is definitely evidence that the emergency pill reduces pregnancy rates in teens.

Plus, we need to remember that the pill is expensive - $40 plus. Lots of teenagers can't afford that. An abortion is more than $1000. We certainly can't afford that. And asking the parents for the money isn't an attractive option.

And if you can't afford the pill and you can't afford the abortion, you're going to have a baby. By having the emergency pill at such a high price, we are punishing teenagers for one mistake.

I don't agree with Mr McCoskrie [Family First national director Bob McCoskrie] that it's "morally flawed" to offer the pill free to young adolescents.

I think it shows compassion and understanding. It shows that we know everyone does stupid things, and that even though you made a mistake, we're not willing to give up on you.

By promoting the emergency contraceptive pill we are saying that you don't have to have a child you can't support, or aren't ready for.

A combination of improved sex education and contraceptive availability is the way toward a lower pregnancy rate.

[US researcher Dr Laurie] Zabin showed that teenagers in school-based sex education programmes had improved contraception use rates and fewer pregnancies.

Obviously 12 year olds shouldn't be having sex. I wouldn't trust them with teaspoons, let alone toddlers.

Parents need to be the ones who step up and talk openly with their children about how it's okay to say no.

If this begins at a younger age, teenagers are going to feel more comfortable and make better decisions when they reach 15 or 16 and start wanting to have sex properly.

A more open approach to talking about sex takes on teenage pregnancies at a deeper level, whereas sex education and free contraception tackles it at an immediate level. And we need both.

So give the girls the emergency contraceptive pill. But not just that. Give them the conversation you wish you'd had as a teenager. Or you'll be giving them the single mothers benefit.

Verity Johnson is an 18-year-old student from Albany.

- NZ Herald

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