Written by Katherine O'Brien


Madame Ovary

Today is World Contraception Day. Though education for young women and teens is necessary and laudable, we shouldn’t forget that older women still need to access contraception, says British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s Katherine O’Brien.

One of your five a day.

One of your five a day.

Stop press – we are a nation of ‘gymslip mums’ no more. Aside from being a horrible term that should be confined to archived copies of the Daily Mail (I mean, do teenagers wear gymslips anymore? Answers on a postcard), statistics now show that our teenage pregnancy rate has declined massively and now stands at the lowest level on record.

Hurrah, I hear you shout. Condom confetti for all! Yes, we must absolutely congratulate those who have worked to bring about this dramatic decline, including the young people who, from having safer sex to shunning booze, are just much more sensible than we ever were.

However, there is a worrying unintended consequence. Amid the drive to bring down our teen pregnancy rate, have we forgotten that women in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s might also be in need of a bit of help to avoid unplanned pregnancy?

Women are waiting much longer to settle down and start a family, which means we are spending an even greater proportion of our most fertile years actively trying to avoid pregnancy. And even once we have settled down with our partner for life, that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to start our family straight away – or that we want to have children at all.

Yet restrictions on contraceptive services often mean that older women aren’t able to access the same care and support as those in their teens and early 20s. We know that some contraceptive clinics are restricted to just those under 25, often quite understandably in the face of funding cuts. Certain methods of contraception can also be limited to those of a younger age, in particular emergency contraception which is largely only available for free from a pharmacy to women under 25 – as if once you hit 26 you automatically have a spare 30 quid if the condom breaks. As a result, it is becoming more difficult for older women to access contraception.

And this is just not reflective of the lives and needs of women over 25. We do, actually, still have sex. And we don’t necessarily want to procreate with everyone we have sex with. They might not be “the one”. They might have voted for Brexit. You might not know their last name. But jokes aside (all totally legit grounds though, in my opinion) we know there are lots of really understandable reasons why women are waiting to have a baby later than ever before.

Bpas recently surveyed 1,000 women who wanted to have children, but had not yet started their family. Half of women said that concerns about the costs of raising a child were a reason, and more than one-third said the fact they did not own their own home was a barrier. Until we fix our unaffordable childcare system and the housing market, which seems unlikely over the next couple of years, we have to accept that women will need access to services and advice that enables us to prevent pregnancy past the ripe old age of 25.

“At bpas we see more women facing unplanned pregnancy aged 35 and over than those aged under 20, and we regularly speak with women in their 30s who say that they had taken a chance with their contraception because they thought it was very unlikely they would get pregnant.”

As it is, advice might be more necessary than ever. It feels like every week we are being chastised with a fresh warning about our supposedly not-so-fresh eggs. We are told that we are ignoring our ticking biological clock, and that we need to get on with it because as soon as your 30th birthday is in sight, your eggs start withering up like the forgotten contents of your fruit bowl (I paraphrase).

Though some of these warnings are well meaning, a lot of the time headlines are not based on the best scientific evidence, which suggests that the vast majority (82 per cent) of women aged 35-39 will conceive within one year of trying. And the unintended consequence is that these constant warnings can lead women to underestimate their fertility, and therefore take risks with their contraception – and this is reflected in our abortion statistics.

At bpas we see more women facing unplanned pregnancy aged 35 and over than those aged under 20, and we regularly speak with women in their 30s who say that they had taken a chance with their contraception because they thought it was very unlikely they would get pregnant. Against the background of constant fertility scaremongering, we are certainly in need of straightforward, evidence-based information that supports our choices – rather than sends us in to blind panics.

Today is World Contraception Day. It’s not exactly Christmas, sure, or even one of those days when Chipotle gives out free Burritos (which tops Christmas in my opinion. I don’t think I’m alone in this). But it is an important opportunity for us to talk about contraception in a different light. It’s not just to prevent ‘gymslip mums’, it’s not just to prevent 16-year-olds getting gonorrhoea after a few too many Smirnoff Ices. It’s for women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond. And we deserve the same access and support as anyone else.



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Written by Katherine O'Brien

Katherine O’Brien is media and public policy manager at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), a not-for-profit charity which advocates for women’s reproductive choice and provides services across the UK.