Why are young women judged for pregnancy scares?

Broadside: Almost half of Irish women are embarrassed when seeking morning-after pill

About a decade ago, I found myself in a doctor’s office in Dublin, requesting emergency contraception. I was in a long-term relationship at the time, didn’t want to be pregnant, and after a (cough) wardrobe malfunction on my boyfriend’s part, wanted to make doubly sure it stayed that way. In my naivety, I assumed it would be a straightforward process. How wrong I was.

“Firstly, I’ll need you to take a pregnancy test, just to make sure,” instructed the (male, sixtysomething) doctor, proffering a test. Five nerve-wracking minutes later, it was confirmed that, in the hours since the night before, I had indeed not become pregnant. A lengthy lecture about safe sex followed, finished off with the instruction that I was to abstain from sex altogether until my next period. “Get thee to a nunnery!” he chided merrily as I made my exit. I think he was only half-joking.

In the years since, I’ve often wondered about this encounter. Given that the risk of pregnancy was only a reality since the day before, was the pregnancy test some kind of weird scare tactic? What was he mentioning nunneries for? And why, afterwards, did I feel so strangely sullied and shamed?

Some new research, commissioned by HRA Pharma, landed into my inbox recently, and the findings will barely come as a surprise to the one in two Irish women who have taken the morning-after pill in the past. Some 38 per cent of survey respondents would go to another town to procure the morning-after pill, while 53 per cent don’t want to feel judged by their healthcare professional. Almost half (45 per cent) of respondents said that they felt embarrassed asking for the pill.

For years, the experience of accessing emergency contraception in Ireland was grimly uniformal. The waiting rooms of Well Woman centres, doctors’ surgeries and student health centres would fill with women of all ages shifting in their seats with remorse, often forced to regurgitate details about the sex in question to indifferent healthcare professionals. I’m glad to report that things are a little different nowadays; the haughty lectures, and the dumb questions such as “do you know the boy?” are now rare.

Was the awkwardness in those interactions by design to deter clients from accessing the morning-after pill too often and to steer them towards a form of contraception that wouldn’t play havoc with their hormonal systems? Were the staff just jaded from having the same conversations with women? Did the clients feel shame because of cultural conditioning? It’s hard to tell.

Of all the contraceptive choices available, the morning-after pill appears to be the most contentious. Many barely see it as a contraceptive “choice” at all. We’ve grown up in a society in which a small but very vocal faction of people had a stranglehold on the dialogue around pregnancy and choice, and many of them believe life to begin at conception. Google “is the morning” and the first phrase to pop up is “is the morning-after pill an abortion?”

Certainly, every time I write about emergency contraception, my Twitter timeline fills with tweets (from men, mainly) offering to “enlighten” me on the basics of contraception as though I’m clueless on this stuff. It’s part of a widely held mindset that believes those who seek out emergency contraception are clueless. But the reasons are manifold. Some haven’t found a regular method of contraception that works for them yet. There are the aforesaid wardrobe malfunctions. There are issues with timing. In many cases, and for a wide swathe of reasons, there was no contraception to begin with. Can we please stop pretending that this doesn’t happen, and that it’s a massive moral failure when it does?

Ultimately, those who seek out emergency contraception are taking control of their reproductive destiny. But alas, many still prefer to regard them as women (usually young, a bit silly, fond of casual sex, unversed in the ways of the world) who “slipped up” or “got carried away”. Don’t even get me started on how problematic this attitude is. People – young, old, married, otherwise – get carried away during sex the whole time. An unintentional pregnancy is rarely seen as a source of shame, for instance, for the married woman who always insisted she never wanted children. By its very nature, sex makes some people cross-eyed with passion, and drunk with lust. Getting caught in this dizzying, overwhelming riptide happens, and thoughts of risk or consequence can get lost on the wind. It’s just that young women are the only ones who get judged for it.