London (CNSNews.com) - English schoolgirls as young as 12 will be able to obtain the "morning-after pill" from school nurses without their parents' knowledge, as the government pursues its campaign to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies.
The hormone-based pill - billed as an emergency contraceptive, but described by pro-lifers as an abortifacient drug - is, starting this month, available over the counter from UK pharmacies, to those 16 and over.
It has now emerged, however, that several schools in areas where teenage pregnancy rates are particularly high have already started to issue it to pupils of younger ages, and others plan to follow suit. The age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16.
Schools will inform parents when their nurses will start to make the pill available, but not when specific girls are given it. The Department of Health said those distributing the pill would be trained to ask the right questions before making a decision whether to do so in a particular case.
Pro-life campaigners said they were concerned, although not surprised, by the development.
"We have known about this scheme for some time and it was entirely expected that it would expand to more and more schools," said John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).
"The easy availability of morning-after pills is central to the government's strategy on teenage pregnancy, a strategy which has received [Prime Minister] Tony Blair's strong personal support."
Smeaton noted that the government conceded last November that there was no evidence availability of the morning-after pill reduced pregnancy rates. Prescriptions for the drug rose five-fold during the 1990s, but the overall abortion rate also rose over the same period.
Pro-lifers and family groups have also expressed concern about the health risks for young girls, posed both by the powerful dose of hormones and the likelihood of a more casual attitude to sex, with the attendant risks of sexually-transmitted disease.
"Distributing morning-after pills in schools brings abortion into the classroom and endangers the health of vulnerable girls," Smeaton said. "This is another example of the government, in denial of evidence, promoting a dogmatic social policy with no regard for human dignity."
SPUC plans to hand over warning leaflets outside pharmacies. Another anti-abortion group, Life, has its members delivering letters to pharmacists themselves, warning about the risks of costly lawsuits should they issue the drug to young women who subsequently suffer ill-effects.
Opposition has also come from the Conservative Party, whose health spokesman, Dr. Liam Fox, said schoolgirls were being sent the wrong message while parents were being left in the dark.
"Giving [the pill] out in schools is sending the wrong message to girls," he said. "Parents will also feel that their rights have been diminished by the government. I think parents will be very alarmed at the news."
A Roman Catholic Church spokesman said handing out the drug at schools was "a way of solving the consequences rather than trying to deal with the original problem."
Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O' Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said this week that making the morning-after pill readily available was contributing to the "trivialization of sex" in society.
See Earlier Story:
UK Pharmacists Warned Of Morning-After Pill Lawsuits (3 Jan. 2001)