Colette Sheridan: With teens getting it on, free contraception seems a no-brainer

The government decided in Budget 2022 to give free contraception to women aged 17 to 25. Was it the right thing to do? So asks Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: With teens getting it on, free contraception seems a no-brainer

From next August, women aged 17 to 25 years of age will be able to avail of free contraceptives, thanks to Budget 2022.

WE have finally grown up. People are having sex. Teenagers are getting it on. Where there’s sex, there’s a need for contraception.

And while Irish women have had to go to ludicrous lengths to highlight this fact of life (think of the contraceptive train in the 1970s), our plight is being recognised. From next August, women aged 17 to 25 will be able to avail of free contraceptives.

Everything relating to our reproductive system costs. There’s the cost of sanitary products for periods, there’s the cost of birth control and then, when you hit menopause when it should all be over, you may have to pay for HRT if you’re unlucky enough to suffer from night sweats, brain fog and other debilitating symptoms of ‘the change.’ Heck, you’ll have no change from your wages to pay for all this stuff. It’s hard being a woman.

First of all, why weren’t young men addressed in the health minister’s seemingly progressive announcement in Budget 2022? Shouldn’t they be given free condoms? 

It takes two to tango. It’s not fair that the contraceptive burden should always fall on women. 

Mind you, if men were responsible for taking a contraceptive pill, would women trust them to be diligent enough to remember to swallow them every day?

Contraception is seen as a women’s issue. But there is such a thing as the National Condom Distribution Service. It distributes free condoms to services working directly with groups who may be at increased risk of unplanned pregnancy, HIV or sexually transmitted infections. Let’s hope men are availing of this service if they claim to be unable to afford to buy condoms - even though they always have money for a rake of pints.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s women who will be left holding the baby if they don’t take precautions.

To think that anyone might have an unwanted pregnancy because they can’t afford contraceptives is unfair.

Last year, the Dublin Well Woman Centre (DWWW) published research on women’s knowledge, awareness and access to contraception. The study, entitled The Contraception Conversation, found that the cost of contraception is one of the barriers faced by many women, especially young women. It also found that the contraceptive pill and condoms are the most common forms of contraception used by the respondents. Some 28% of them use the pill while 27% rely on condoms to prevent pregnancy. Depressingly, these are the methods cited most often in contraceptive failure by health experts and international research.

Over half of the respondents in The Contraceptive Conversation were not aware that the condom has a 17% failure rate and almost half were unaware that the failure rate for the pill is actually 9%.

There is then a growing demand for LARCs (Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives) as they are more reliable than the popular forms of contraception. These ‘Fit and Forget’ contraceptives are also the most cost-effective form of birth control in the long run. However, there is an initial purchase and fitting cost which can prevent younger women from availing of it. But cost shouldn’t be a barrier to availing of LARCs which are over 99% effective in reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancy.

The Well Woman Centre’s chief executive, Alison Begas, has welcomed the free contraceptives initiative and points out: “Adequate resourcing of the programme is crucial. It also needs to address geographic and information barriers to accessing the appropriate form of contraception.”

And, she adds, it “needs to be rolled out to women across all reproductive years. So, it’s a case of much done, but more to do.”

Call me old fashioned, but I don’t agree with giving girls of 12 (the age when periods often start if not earlier) carte blanche to have sex. 

A 12- year-old girl is still a child in many ways. She will not have the emotional maturity to deal with the emotional fallout from sex, particularly casual sex. Nor will a 13-year-old or indeed a 14-year-old. Seventeen is still very young but it’s probably a good barometer of what is actually happening.

The Joe Duffy Show is a reliable barometer of what the nation is thinking. When a caller named Yvonne said to the broadcaster last week: “Never mind getting pregnant - it’s about catching a disease.”

Duffy asked if Yvonne had a 19-year-old son, would she give him condoms before he goes on a night out?

She said: “Absolutely.”

And she added: “I would go out and buy the bloody things for him.”

This surely confirms that we have grown up as a nation.

But it also underlines the degree to which women have to be ultra-vigilant around sex. Very young girls can be used by boys. Contraception can fail. It’s a real quagmire out there.

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