by SHRN member Caroline Tomes
Last week the Daily Mail reported that over 3,500 people under eighteen have been given the contraceptive implant in Scotland since 2010. The article raised concerns (in the moralising tone typical of the Daily Mail…) regarding legality, safety and consequences.
I would like to address these concerns, and put the record straight that providing under-16s with contraceptive implants is no bad thing.
Is it legal?
Contrary to the Daily Mail’s suggestion, there is no age restriction to obtaining confidential advice and contraception in the UK. The young person must be ‘deemed competent’ by a healthcare professional. This means they must be mature enough to understand the advice and risks to inform their decision.
Furthermore, young people have the same rights to confidentiality as would any other patient. Healthcare staff will normally encourage young people to discuss these issues with their parents. However unless they suspect the young person is at serious risk of harm or abuse, all consultations will remain confidential.
Is it safe?
The contraceptive implant is perfectly safe to use, and there is no reason why under-16s would be at any additional risk than the rest of the population. The potential side effects of the implant are well-documented, and as with any contraception it may not suit everyone so it is best to have a discussion with a healthcare professional.
Once inserted the implant is 99% effective at preventing pregnancy and its protection lasts for three years. Of course, it does not protect against sexually transmitted infections so it is always advisable to wear a condom for added protection. For more information, visit the NHS Choices webpage on the contraceptive implant here.
Will a fitted contraceptive implant make users ‘more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by older sexual predators’?
In short, no.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that a young person using contraception (whether it be the implant or another method) would be at any increased risk of abuse or exploitation. Unless the young person decides to disclose their contraception no one would have any clue that it was fitted. In fact, this is one of the many benefits of the contraceptive implant – its so very convenient and discrete! If anything, the implant provides more security and protection against pregnancy compared to other contraceptive methods which can be prone to user failure (e.g. forgetting to take the pill) or sabotage (i.e. behavior or emotional act leading to ineffective birth control practice). If a young person is unfortunate enough to be experiencing abuse or exploitation, this is much more likely to be a product of their environment rather than anything associated with their use of contraception.
Furthermore – before anyone suggests it – the archaic ‘immoral behaviour’ argument suggesting that contraception leads to sexual promiscuity is also unfounded. A paper published from the Contraceptive Choice project earlier this year reported that women who use contraception are no more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour than those not using contraception.
Providing under-16s with contraceptive implants is no bad thing
It is legal, safe and is far more likely to protect young women from unintended pregnancies than be associated with any negative outcomes. When the latest Natsal study shows us that 30.9% of young people aged 16 to 24 are having sex before 16, this indicates a greater need to have open discussions with young people about sex, ensure they have access to the support and advice they need, and support them to avoid unintended pregnancies by choice rather than by chance.
Lets stop using health professionals as scapegoats, and instead start recognising the sexual needs of young people.
Family Planning Association factsheet “Under-16s: consent and confidentiality in sexual health services” (2009)
Brook webpage “Sex and the law: consent to medical treatment” accessed 4th Sept 2014
NHS Choices “Contraceptive Implant” accessed 4th Sept 2014
Concerned about possible child abuse or exploitation? Do visit the NSPCC website for information, advice and support.