Robbie Low considers where we have reached “forty years on”

IT WAS a Thursday afternoon in the summer of 1961 . My mother had asked me to drop in my grandmother’s prescription on the way home from school. Hence I was dutifully standing in a queue of middle aged ladies, in Cherry’s the chemist, behind a nervous and rather agitated man of about 35. Unfortunately for him his turn had coincided with the availability of the elderly deaf female assistant. He whispered his order.

“I beg your pardon”, she whinnied. He repeated it, loud enough for me and the lady next to me to hear. She tried not to look embarrassed, I tried not to giggle. The assistant’s hearing remained impenetrable. Two more efforts of increasing volume and a now fully informed audience, the desperate would-be purchaser bellowed, in a mixture of shame and defiance, “A packet of Durex please!”

“Cloth ears” took as long as she could to find the ghastly product for a man she clearly regarded as a sexual predator. The assembled matrons shared concerned and distressed looks about a man who was so brazen about his lust, and on a Thursday afternoon at that! Any decent God-fearing man would have waited for a Saturday night like everybody else. And finally the wretched creature, three shillings and ninepence lighter and utterly humiliated, was released into the wild to have his wicked way with some poor woman who was, we uncharitably assumed, “no better than she ought to be”. Had his local intelligence been more acute he would have known that the Barber’s early closing day was Thursday. Men traditionally purchased “something for the weekend” there with a minimum of fuss and manly embarrassment after a good short, back and sides and a slick of Brylcreem. Had the young man’s lust not been so urgent and he could have waited, say a couple of years, he would have found himself in an utterly different world. The advent of the contraceptive pill and the first flowering of the permissive society virtually made his purchase redundant. (Sales of condoms slumped for decades, while promiscuity and venereal disease boomed. Only AIDS restored their fortunes when they became, once again, the de rigeur of sexual courtesy.)


Had he revisited his dilemma half-a-dozen years later he could simply have popped into the lavatory of his local public house and helped himself from a machine on the wall. Indeed his son or daughter would have been able to do much the same thing in their college bars and even at some “enlightened” schools.

By the following decade he would have been faced with prophylactics in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes, mouldings, sensitivity etc etc. Today he could even select them in anything from curry flavour to rhubarb and custard – a fact which tells us more about the current sexual preferences of Western woman (and man) than we really wanted to know. By the end of the 1960s our customer could be assured that, even if his purchase failed (or he failed to purchase), the result of his error could be tidied up, legally, under David Steel’s Abortion Act. His wife, daughter or mistress could be persuaded or pressured into an action which she would spend most of her life recalling, in moments of acute aloneness, with anguish and regret.

By the middle of the 1970s he need not have purchased anything. He and/ or his partner could have gone along to a family planning clinic for advice and endless free supplies. With pill or cap or coil there were few embarrassing moments. With condoms, however, there was the inevitable question, “How many?”. Here the male would be covered in confusion as ambition fought with realism and public image was jeopardised by private history. It is no exaggeration to say that, to the queue in the chemist shop that morning and indeed the whole of a society emerging from a much gentler and more innocent 1950s, the developments listed above would not even have registered in the “wildest fantasy” bracket. That a society would come to view promiscuity and sexual licence as normative or that the medical profession would tear the heart out of the Hippocratic Oath would have been unimaginable.


This, of course, has been far from the end of the matter. Liberalisers are never content until everyone else has had the newly won “liberties” imposed upon them. Corruption never rests until it has corrupted everybody. Most offensive of all to these twin engines of social decay is innocence. While it would have been an unthinkable outrage to the 1961 queue, to the spiritually alert the next phase, in the 1980s, was all too predictable. The Gillick case brought to public attention a piece of truly shocking public policy which had crept in by the back door during the previous decade. Victoria Gillick, an ordinary wife and mother, discovered that she, and every other parent in the land, were not allowed to know if (their) children under 16 were being prescribed contraceptives by doctor or clinic. The Department of Health guidelines for this deceit were drawn up after guidance from “family planning” and abortion agencies. In effect the state had, by sleight of hand, replaced responsible parenting with its own warped values. Gillick started with several advantages. She was young, attractive, gutsy and articulate. But she also had a media downside. She was, that least forgivable of all things, a Roman Catholic and therefore, de facto, an extremist. She also had a large number of children which she had, quite irresponsibly, failed to prevent. Though public opinion was firmly with her the great and the good knew better and the highest ranks of the liberal judiciary were wheeled in to crush her and the rights of all parents. All the usual special pleading was used. Hard cases were wheeled out. Naturally doctors would try to persuade children to talk with parents, but what if parents were unreasonable, uncaring, absent etc.? Doctor knew best and confidentiality reigned. Parents were in no position to challenge it or care for their own children. They were merely expected, years on, to pick up the tab for the consequences.


As with all these much vaunted liberalisations, the victims have not noticeably benefited from their “freedoms” and the statistical consequences in sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and juvenile pregnancies has given this country an unenviable place at the top of the league table. The last few weeks in the Houses of Parliament have powerfully underlined how unrepentant the legislators are of their previous follies and how profoundly their previous legislation has failed our society. Hard on the heels of the cloning debate, in which the Government was equally contemptuous of divine law and human rights, an order appeared effectively deregulating the availability of a very powerful contraceptive and abortifacient, the “morning after” pill.

The “morning after ” pill is referred to, by its proponents, as “emergency contraception”. It is to be taken up to 72 hours after the event and, where it is “successful”, works in one of two ways. By delivering a massive dose of contraceptive drug it can either delay or prevent ovulation. If, on the other hand, conception has taken place already it will make the lining of the womb hostile to implantation thereby causing an abortion. It is fair to say that the Government disputes that this counts as abortion but when the Department of Health was asked to name even three established scientists who thought that pregnancy began at implantation they were unable to do so.

The tragic rule of thumb of the last 20 years has been an ad hoc “life begins when we say so” and that is all too often determined by the interests of the abortion industry, the fertility industry and the pharmaceutical industry. Not infrequently it has successfully sought its moral mandate from liberal theology. When well-meaning Christians collaborate with this sort of philosophy they seem blissfully unaware that they are sharply at odds with the revealed Word of God and the Judaeo- Christian understanding of the nature of man. They seem equally unaware that, at the other age end of the debate, they are digging their own graves as well as that of millions of children.

Of course the “morning after” pill is not new. It has been available, through doctors, for more than a decade. The change that the government has pushed through though is quite startling. Now, not only will you the parent not know if your child is taking or using contraception but neither will her doctor! The pills are to be available over the counter at the chemist or from the school nurse or youth worker.


Before looking at the implications of this decision it would be fairest to advance, first of all, what was in the Government’s mind. And here we are in a difficulty and it is of the Government’s own making. By choosing to advance the case by an Order they have deliberately used the weakest of parliamentary procedures. The Order must lie on the Table for 40 days after publication before it becomes law. In other words it relies for debate, if any, on objectors raising the issue. Amazingly the government brought the Order into force 20 days after it was laid before Parliament, a full three weeks before a Commons committee addressed it and four weeks before the House of Lords was permitted to debate it. Whatever one’s view on the issue no one can be comfortable with a Government, with a huge majority and a freshly gerrymandered constitution, which is so impatient with the democratic process.

Insofar as Government supporters put the case it was simply that the wider availability and accessibility of this pill would reduce the number of abortions and, as the Bishop of Southwark put it, “unwanted teenage pregnancies” which are “such a great evil”.

The evidence for this optimism is a little harder to come by. Over all the years that “morning after ” pills have been available (almost a million packs a year prescribed) the number of abortions has increased. While many of us were celebrating the millennium of our Lord Jesus Christ, Marie Stopes International was offering millennium party goers “morning after” pills over the Internet and Brook Advisory Centres wanted “everyone ready for the millennium party, party, party” and planned to give party goers “emergency contraception in advance”. Brook is funded by public money and it will be interesting to see if the demands for the life destroying services of either of these charities is reduced by their foresight and “benevolence”. Whatever the outcome in abortion statistics, and history is not encouraging, there can be no doubt that the statistics of venereal disease will not improve. Young men do not need much encouragement to find reasons why young women should have sex with them. Most, understandably, prefer intercourse without a condom and would be happy to tell the girl, “Go on. You can always get something from the chemist tomorrow”.


The Department of Health’s own document (National Sexual Health) tells us that STD clinics have 1 million attendances per annum (double that of 10 years ago). Chlamydia (” the silent killer”- a major cause of infertility) rose by 21% 1996-97 and a further 13% 1997-98. Gonorrhoea in males rose by 39 % 1998-99 and by 24 % in females. The 1999 figures for HIV saw the highest number of diagnoses ever recorded. On every front of sexual health we are facing epidemics.

But there are other consequences too. The use of a pharmacy as a clinic is far from straightforward. Those of us who find discussing our financial affairs at a public desk, surrounded by queuing customers of the bank, unhelpful can only wonder at what is proposed for would be purchasers of this pill. The chemist is obliged to give them a consultation. There, at the counter presumably, who had what where and when will be discussed. Aside from the lack of confidentiality (or facilities to achieve it), the chemist has no way of knowing the applicants age. Proof documents, even if requested, are notoriously easy to fake. More importantly the chemist will know nothing of the patient’s health (the doctor has the records) and will not be able or expected to conduct even a cursory examination. The chemist will not know if the prospective customer had unprotected sex last night or last month. The chemist will then sell her a powerful drug and not inform the customer’s doctor. As she is at liberty to buy anywhere, without record or trace, she can repeat this procedure as often as she likes at different chemists. The chemist, for her trouble, will receive not 95p for a prescription but £10 for a consultation.


The long-term effects of repeated use of this pill are unknown. (There is a bitter irony here. Chemists were really hoping for the deregulation of some mild antibiotics which they felt they could responsibly dispense.)

Will every chemist solemnly explain to her desperate customer that the long-term effects are unknown? Will she explain the side-effects? Will she explain the dangers of using it as a late abortifacient? Will she explain that, if it fails to prevent ovulation or destroy the conceptus, the continuing pregnancy will need to be examined for risk of ectopic complications – one of the most serious hazards to the life of the expectant mother? Or that any embryo successfully implanting may have suffered significant damage? Even if she does will the girl take any notice? The doctor’s surgery with full medical records is a long way from a hasty conversation over a shop counter. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that the high language of this debate on social engineering scarcely masks the shabby reality.


The proponents of the permissive society have persistently argued that with more liberalisation, more contraception, more availability and more education, education, education everything will suddenly get better. Forty years on we have the most massively available and accessible contraception in history. Our children are subjected to remorseless education from the bizarre (how to put a condom on a banana – I kid you not) to the forensic details of human sexual response and the hazards of infection. No age has been more educated about the subject. But it has been done in a moral vacuum and non – judgementally i.e. no relationship, sexuality or practice is taboo. For an age which has an obsession with sex verging on addiction we should not be too surprised at the results in our children. The Judaeo-Christian ethic has been replaced by a sinister paganism and, as always with the return to paganism, the sacrificial victims are the children.

Forty years ago the liberalisers may have told their lies innocently. When they repeat them today in the face of the evidence they do so knowingly and therefore culpably. Their ghastly experiment has failed and at unimaginable cost to the lives of ordinary people. These, their victims, are now a problem and a social cost. The liberalisers have hijacked the language of “care” to mean something radically different. As with so many of their other reforms, the permission to sell these pills over the counter is an act or profound moral carelessness and an immoral imposition on our pharmacists. It reduces the care of our children and our society’s respect for life to the level of counselling with a chemistry set.

Robbie Low is the Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath, in the diocese of St Alban’s