Friday 9 December 2016

In my opinion: 'If the morning after pill were available when I was young, I'd have been first in line'

Published 26/02/2011 | 05:00

I am not going to pontificate about the new, over-the-counter availability of the morning-after pill from Irish pharmacies.

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Any such moralising would be laughable. If it had been available when I was in my 20s, I'd probably have been first in line. Another feckless, drunken night chalked up. Better get the morning-after pill. Phew!

But therein lies the very problem of easy availability. If I had known that I could get my mitts on what is euphemistically called 'emergency contraception', I'd have been even more drunken and feckless in my carousings.

What does it matter what you get up to? Sure, you can always take the morning-after pill! I'm not saying everyone would have that attitude, but it certainly would have been mine.

And that's why I know, from experience and gut feeling, that over-the-counter availability of NorLevo and Levonelle is bound to have mixed results.

Will it halt unplanned pregnancies? In some cases, I dare say it will, though I think the phrase 'unplanned pregnancy' is subject to a wide spectrum of human variation in mood, fancy, capacity, chance, timing, pairing, fate and the consumption of intoxicants.

Will it be an abortifacient? In some cases, where a conception has taken place, technically it could be thus categorised. Although that unlovely word is shunned in favour of the more attractive, though fictional, 'emergency contraception'. Contra-ception means preventing conception before the first snog, not bolting the stable door after the horse has fled.

In some cases, the morning-after pill will not work -- for a number of reasons, including time -- leaving the young woman with the extra anxiety that if she has conceived, perhaps she has already harmed the embryonic baby.

However, whether folks approve of it or not, it will soon become a fact of life.

But there's a parallel here with all those toxic bank debts we've heard so much about in recent weeks. I'm not going to prognosticate about the banks either, but in the course of the last year I have learned an interesting phrase about why economies run into debt.

It's all summed up in two words: moral hazard. If banks, businesses, investors, bond holders, or perhaps even politicians, are not faced with some form of moral hazard, they are likely to go the dogs.

Moral hazard means that you must take the consequences of your risks. When you are informed that shares can go down as well as up, you are getting a warning about moral hazard.

Very seldom is there such a thing as a free lunch. If you take the risk, you should be fully aware that consequences may follow.

If people think there will be no consequences to their actions, they tend to behave more heedlessly. That's why there are so many horrible, malicious and unkind comments floating around the internet. Anonymous bloggers can say what they like via the internet because there is usually no cost.

Where there is no cost to any action, such actions will increase. That is partly what went wrong with the banking system, or the irresponsible mortgage lenders. They thought there was no downside. The boom would go on forever. And, indeed, when the bubble burst, the banks were bailed out by State. So the moral hazard tab was picked up by the taxpayer.

Same with crime. Same with benefits cheating. Same with tax avoidance. If you get away with it, the behaviour will increase. And I reckon it will turn out to be the same with the morning-after pill. The more successful it is, the greater the demand will grow.

Thinking back to my own behaviour, I am certain that would have been my reaction. Great! I've been saved by the morning-after pill -- now I'm free to take the same risk again!

If the advocates of NorLevo or Levonelle say that this measure will help individual women from facing a catastrophic pregnancy, there will be many women who will nod in agreement. It is not a dishonest claim that these over-the-counter sales will be welcomed by some individual women (and their parents, since a key market area will be teenage girls).

But if advocates claim that it will halt the rate of teenage pregnancies, or accidental, unwanted pregnancies, I can't believe a word of it.

The British have put in all the field research. Billions have been spent on sex education, free access to contraception and emergency contraception for the sexually improvident -- without making any meaningful dent in the rate of teenage, or unwanted, pregnancies.

And it's all down to our friend moral hazard. Behaviour that is rewarded is repeated; behaviour that is penalised is reduced. Everything from effective parenting to traffic laws works on this principle. And, as Samuel Johnson said three centuries ago, "Whatever is done easily will be done often".

Different people will have different views on this issue. But the Irish Medicines Board has approved over-the-counter sales, citing the many countries where such pharmaceuticals are now available. So it's a done deal.

But let's not go in for too much hypocrisy. Let's not start saying that this is a wonderful new form of liberation that will curb the problems of feckless young women risking pregnancy. The feckless are encouraged to further fecklessness when there seems to be no element of moral hazard.

I know because I was so egregiously one of that number.

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