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The Morning-After Pill: Failing Women

Advocates of the morning after pill believe the morning after pill empowers women.  It frees them from the fear of failed contraception and unplanned pregnancy.  Yet in an article in the Sunday Times Magazine on 22nd July, Eleanor Mills interviewed teenage girls about the morning after pill.  The article is behind a paywall.  The young women painted a very different picture of the effect of the pill on their lives.  Far from empowering them, it is forcing them into unwanted sexual encounters, putting them in unsafe situations and jeopardising their health.

A group of girls from a deprived area explained the morning after pill was just another way for men to force them into sex. The way these men see it, if there is no possibility of pregnancy, there is no reason for the woman not to have sex with them. One girl said “If you say you don’t want to have sex, they say ‘Give it up, don’t be silly, get down the clinic [to get the morning after pill].’” Another remarked that “boys push you into sex by saying you can take it the next day.”  These women believed that the morning after pill had reinforced their sexual subjection, helping men to force them into sex and placing sole responsibility for the consequences onto their shoulders.

Even affluent young women from public schools, who did not feel forced into sex, were in a less empowered position as a result of the morning after pill.  One said “It’s like it doesn’t matter how drunk you’ve been, or what happened”, because you can still take the morning after pill.  Another noted that she had taken the morning after pill “after a one-night stand where I was so drunk I couldn’t remember the next day if we had used protection.”  The morning after pill reassures them they can get so drunk they lose all memory without consequences.  But the morning after pill only protects them from pregnancy.  When they are that drunk, they are not empowered; they are often incapable of making sexual choices and open to sexual assault and other violence.

As well as the risk of sexual violence, all young women taking the morning after pill face health risks.  If they are using the pill to protect them from pregnancy, they are at risk of the full range of sexually transmitted infections.  This is a particularly serious risk since many of the girls used the morning after pill after drunken or forced one night stands, where the risk of infection is far higher than in a stable relationship.  The girls were very worried about this: they spoke of their concern that they could face infertility or unpleasant symptoms as a result of infection.

Yet at least this is a known risk.  More worrying is the unknown risk of taking the morning after pill on a frequent basis.  The morning after pill was only ever meant to be taken in an emergency situation, but many young women now use it regularly.  One teenager admitted to taking it three times in one menstrual cycle, and another was given a whole box of morning after pills by a nurse.  Yet we have no idea what this is doing to women’s bodies.  No research has ever been done into the effects of regular use of the morning after pill. This is a serious drug; it floods the body with far more hormones than standard hormonal contraceptives.  Even the girls sensed that it was powerful: “it feels like you’ve tipped bleach down your reproductive system.’  Yet doctors and pharmacists are handing out these pills, without warning young women it may damage their health.

The morning after pill is empowering for men.  It allows them to have sex without taking any responsibility for the consequences and without any regard for protection. But for women, the costs are huge.  It gives them all the responsibility for procuring protection, often at a high financial cost.  It puts them in serious danger of sexual assault, whether because they feel forced or are too drunk to say no.  It puts them at risk of sexually transmitted diseases and other, still unknown, health problems.  Having heard the experiences of these young women, is it credible to keep claiming the morning after pill is helping them?