National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Cardinal Decries Drugstore’s Teen Birth-Control Program

BY Paul Burnell

December 27, 1998-January 2, 1999 Issue | Posted 12/27/98 at 2:00 AM


MANCHESTER, England—British Catholics are boycotting the country's largest pharmaceutical chain after it was revealed that teen-agers will be given free contraceptives at one of its stores.

The move by Boots in its busiest store in Glasgow, Scotland, brought a swift rebuke from Thomas Cardinal Winning, archbishop of Glasgow, who said the store was sending the wrong moral message to teens.

“This is absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable,” he said. “It erodes the principles of morality and undermines the role and authority of parents. The place has gone sex mad.

“The message to young people seems to be that if you have sex, we will try to limit the damage that causes.”

Parents and pro-life activists are appalled at the store's partnership with city health authorities to provide an in-store family planning clinic. The clinic opens for two hours a day, twice a week, giving sex advice, condoms, and the birth-control pill to teen-agers.

Those against the scheme believe it is a trial run for a national program. It has also been revealed that the clinic will give the pill to girls under the age of 16, the U.K.'s age of consent.

Said Cardinal Winning: “I would argue that it would be better to encourage young people to take a responsible attitude to sex in the first place. Parents should be encouraged to take a greater role, but under the guise of patient confidentiality they are being [left] out entirely.

“If a teen-ager is being bullied at school, the first thing that would happen is that the parents would be told. But if they are having sex at a young age that appears to be a different story.” Catholic newspapers in Britain have urged their readers to write to the company's chairman, Lord Blyth, saying they will boycott the store until the policy is reversed.

‘If a teen-ager is being bullied at school, the first thing that would happen is that the parents would be told. But if they are having sex at a young age that appears to be a different story.’

The Universe, a weekly Catholic tabloid, urged readers to send the following cut-out coupon to the company: “Dear Lord Blyth, I am appalled that your company has decided to open a clinic providing free contraception to young people at your Glasgow store, and at the possibility that the scheme could be extended to your other stores. I believe this move to bring free contraception onto the High Street is morally unacceptable and therefore I have no choice but to boycott your stores in the hope that you will reconsider this plan and the effect it will have on young people.”

Backing the boycott was Nuala Scarisbrick, a trustee of Life, one of the two major pro-life organizations in the United Kingdom. “We need to show our disgust that such a good company should descend to encouraging underage sex,” Scarisbrick said. Life said the policy would lead to a rise in promiscuity and would result in increased abortion and sexually transmitted diseases among teens. The organization said the only way to stop the spread of the policy was to hit the company in its cash tills.

The action by Boots has revived the debate over the rights of parents vs. patient confidentiality. In the mid-1980s the issue became high profile when Victoria Gillick, a Catholic, took her local health authority and the U.K.'s Department of Health to court in a bid to allow parents the right to veto the prescription of the pill and the provision of abortion to underage girls.

Although three judges in the U.K. Court of Appeal voted in her favor, the ruling was overturned by the highest court in Britain, the House of Lords. The five law Lords voted 3-2 to overturn the earlier decision. Even then they ruled that contraception and abortion should only be given to underage teens without parental knowledge or consent in exceptional circumstances. Within months of the 1985 ruling, however, free contraception to under-16s became widely available fueled in part by the U.K.'s Safe Sex campaign.

Gillick, a pregnancy counselor with five daughters, told the Register, “I think Boots is cashing in on something. The clinic is on the premises, so where will they take their free prescription for the pill?” Gillick said she was skeptical about Boots’ claims that this Glasgow policy was not the forerunner of national action: “I don't believe them because of the financial links between selling contraceptives and the health education lobby. The contraceptives are free to the girls but somebody is making money from the prescription.”

Gillick also predicted that if more stores opened these clinics, the birth control pill and the “morning-after” pill would be prescribed by nurses rather than a doctor.

She said the policy was not just immoral but it also created serious health risks for the teen-age girls: “It is very worrying. We now know there is a positive link between women who develop breast cancer under the age of 30 and the fact that they took oral contraceptives in their teens.

“More especially the adolescents risk a 50% increase in breast cancer. At present the rates of breast cancer for all ages have gone through the stratosphere.” Gillick said even if the girls

were not offered the pill they were given condoms. When those failed the girls would return to the clinic for PC4—the so-called morning-after pill. “The morning-after pill is a massive experiment with the health of young people,” she added.

Meanwhile, a fresh campaign is being forged by another group, Parents Against Oral Contraceptives For Children. It has also condemned the clinic as a disgrace.

“We shouldn't be prescribing these potent drugs to children,” said the group's founder, Jenny Bacon, whose own daughter Caroline died from a stroke caused by the birth control pill. She had been given a prescription for the pill at age 14 without her parents’ knowledge and died just before her 16th birthday.

Said Bacon: “I am absolutely appalled; we must all stand together because we've got to let them know how we feel. I would encourage everyone to write to Boots and make as much of a fuss as possible. I certainly intend never to set foot in the shop again.”

Both Bacon and Gillick met U.K. government officials at the Cabinet Office in mid-December as part of consultations involving the Blair government. Representatives of health groups, Church bodies, and lobby groups met to discuss the issue of teenage pregnancy.

Boots, the British-owned chain, has more than 1,300 stores in Britain and 85 outlets in Ireland, Holland, and Thailand. The company said it had no plans to close the birth-control service in its Glasgow store.

A Boots spokeswoman told the Register the company had received both negative and positive responses to the operation. She said the company was only responding to a local initiative as part of its policy to support government health objectives. The U.K. government has five key health goals, one of which is reducing teen-age pregnancies. “We have made it absolutely clear we will do everything we can, as the chemist to the nation, to support the government in its health objectives,” the spokeswoman said.

She said the chain was responding to a local health need by offering its store as a venue for the clinic operated by Greater Glasgow Community and Mental Health National Health Service Trust.

A spokeswoman denied the Glasgow program was the start of a national policy but also said, “If we were approached with a similar idea in another store we would consider it in the light of our concern for the nation's health.”

Dr. Tina Mackie, who will be in charge of the drop-in center, told journalists that if a 13-year-old girl asked for the morning-after pill she would consider prescribing it. “Young people have a right to a confidential medical service and that includes contraception,” she said. The clinic will be held in a private room while health workers will staff a stall on the shop floor handing out leaflets on issues such as HIV.

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.