Why pregnancy advice for teens needs regulated
If there's one thing I've learned about young people, it's that you need to be straight with them. Teenage ears are permanently attuned to the possibility of being patronised.
If there's an agenda at work, some kind of implicit or underlying narrative going on, they'll sniff it out in an instant. They're smart like that.
It's not surprising really: they are individuals, rapidly developing thoughts and opinions and values of their own. And that's why we should treat them with the openness and respect they deserve, especially with regard to sensitive, complicated issues like sex and love.
Love for Life, a Christian charity that delivers relationship and sexuality education to the majority of post-primary schools in Northern Ireland, including my daughter's school, has evidently put a great deal of effort into approaching young adults in an accessible, friendly, non-judgmental manner.
Facilitators are deliberately 'down with the kids': matey and jokey, casually dressed in polo shirts and jeans, playing chart music throughout the session, supplying bright, attractive leaflets about 'dating and mating'.
One of the charity's stated aims is to 'empower' young people, educating and supporting them in their 'physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual development'. Love for Life advocates an abstinence-centred approach, believing that 'the ideal context for a sexual relationship is within the lifelong committed relationship of marriage'.
Now, there's nothing wrong with encouraging youngsters not to rush into sex too soon. That's something which all parents can safely agree on. Most parents would prefer that their offspring's first sexual encounters take place later, ideally within a loving relationship. Fair enough.
But the fact (of life) remains that plenty of adolescents are already getting up to all kinds of sexual hijinks, and some of those will result in the dread scenario of teenage pregnancy. What then?
Well, I don't know about you, but if my daughter was ever in that awful situation, I'd want her to have the full facts at her disposal – all the options, spelled out clearly, along with where to go for impartial, informed support and evidence-based advice from appropriately qualified and regulated professionals.
And this is where Love for Life, to my mind, needs to think again.
Beyond speaking to a responsible adult, like a teacher or a GP, Love for Life advises young women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant to approach two organisations, one called Care Confidential, the other called Life.
Care Confidential, which was founded as a programme of the pro-life organisation, Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), and became an independent charity in 2011, is one of two main providers of crisis pregnancy centres (CPCs) in the UK. Life, a 'pro-life and educational' charity, is the other main provider.
There are at least four CPCs in Northern Ireland, three of which are provided by Care Confidential, the other by Life.
These centres are privately run organisations, unregulated by any official body, and operating outside the NHS; their status means that they are not legally obligated to give women medically accurate information.
Which is just as well for them, because some of the centres have recently been accused – through undercover investigations by both the Daily Telegraph and Brook, the sexual health charity – of offering highly misleading information, including the fictitious claims that abortion may lead to an increased risk of breast cancer, or that the procedure could leave them unable to carry future pregnancies to full term.
One British centre, provided by Care Confidential, associated abortion with 'post-abortion syndrome', a bogus medical condition, likened to post-traumatic stress disorder, which is unrecognised by any medical body.
Amid calls for CPCs to be regulated, Dr Sarah Wollaston (below), a Conservative member of the health select committee, said that "women who go to a centre which purports to give impartial advice that is fundamentally anti-abortion in its stance, but doesn't openly say so, is totally unacceptable".
Young people have the right to be fully informed on all the choices they make about their bodies, as neutrally and as objectively as possible, without anyone else's agenda intruding. They need facts, if we truly want to empower them. And if Love for Life is a pro-life charity, it should come out and say so. Then we all know where we stand.