After reading about the decision by a court in the United States to allow teenage girls under 17 to buy morning-after pills over the counter, I decided to ask my teenage daughter if she knew about emergency contraceptives.
"Of course," she answered. "It's to prevent pregnancy after you've had sex."
I admit, I was stunned for a moment. She was my baby only yesterday, and here she was uttering that word without thinking anything of it.
"Do you know how to use it?" I ventured.
"Of course,"she said with a tone that made me feel like I was the most boring person in the world. "You take it the morning after, like the name says."
She was obviously upset when I laughed at her answer. "What if the girl has sex in the morning or during the day?" I asked. "Does that mean they have to wait until the next morning to take the pill?"
At that, my daughter looked bewildered. "Why give them that name then?" she said. Then, when I asked her about different brands and prices, and where to buy them, she became annoyed as she was forced to admit she didn't have the answers. "How could I know?" she said.
After telling myself I could then relax, I gave her a brief lecture on the proper use of the medicine. Just in case.
The pill is most effective when used within 24 hours, I told her, but will also work up to three days after having unprotected sex. Nausea is a common side effect because of the sudden change in hormones. If vomiting takes place, a second pill must be taken right away.
"This is not about abortion," I stressed. "It's about preventing eggs from being fertilised."
After years of campaigning, advocates of reproductive rights in the US are delighted to see the morning-after pill becoming more accessible. But they're in for a big disappointment if they think the move will bring an end to teenage pregnancy and abortion.
Just look at Thailand.
Emergency contraceptives have been available over the counter here, with no age limit, for years. But the teen pregnancy and abortion problems remain serious.
According to the Public Health Ministry, Thailand has the second-highest teen pregnancy rate within the Asean region. Last year, teenagers between 15-19 gave birth to 370 babies a day on average. About 10 of these teen mums were under 15.
Among the reasons for the high teen pregnancy rate are girls' failure to insist their partners practise safe sex and the widespread, and falsely held, belief that "doing it just once" cannot result in pregnancy.
"The main problem is not the lack of access, but a lack of knowledge, both about the need for protected sex and about the pills themselves," reproductive rights activist Nattaya Boonpakdee said.
"What girls know is what they learn by word of mouth from their friends. Many don't even realise they can get HIV and Aids from unprotected sex. Nor do they know about the proper use of the morning-after pill, its dosage and possible side effects."
Another problem is that girls lack power, Ms Nattaya said. "Child or teenage pregnancies are often the result of sexual abuse and violence. We can't expect girls who are stricken by fear of punishment and social stigma to simply go to the pharmacy and buy contraceptives."
The Education Ministry refuses to include the subject of emergency contraception in the sex education curriculum, believing it will lead to promiscuity. Similarly, the Public Health Ministry has yet to establish a platform for counselling and other support services for teenage girls that might help prevent unprotected sex and reduce the number of abortions.
In the meantime, teenage boys continue to be sent the message from society that it is okay for them to be sexually exploitative and irresponsible.
It's clear. To save our girls from sexual exploitation, our cultural values and sexual double standards must change. The prejudice that makes society view pregnant teenagers as "bad girls" who deserve to be punished must also stop.
Otherwise, our young girls may be saved the morning after, but will remain trapped in a system designed to keep them down for ever.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Sanitsuda Ekachai
Position: Assistant Editor