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Sex and drugs … and the extremely elusive search for objective truth

2010 November 5
by Paul Vallely

The line of logic of those who want chemists to give the contraceptive pill to 13-year-old girls is pretty clear. It will only be given to girls who come into the chemist asking for the morning after pill. Therefore it will only be given to girls who are sexually active already. They will get just a month’s supply so they have to go to a doctor or sexual health clinic thereafter. If they don’t get it “these most vulnerable women” will continue to have sex and become pregnant. It would be irresponsible not to prevent that.

But what about the law of unintended consequences? The counter argument is that the wider message being sent out by this pilot project on the Isle of Wight is that sex among 13-year-olds is normative. The more under-age girls who think that is what is expected of them the more teenage pregnancies there will be, because most of them have sex without contraception. Far from protecting a few young women from unwanted pregnancy it will increase the problem on a far wider scale.  And that will increase, not reduce, the vulnerability of girls who are not “young women” but children.

Leave aside morality for a moment and ask is there an empirical way of discovering which of these arguments will prove factually correct?  There is a parallel here with another controversy in which some people argue there is a way of reaching an objective truth.

Professor David Nutt, who was the government’s chief adviser on drugs until he was sacked for exceeding his scientific brief and making political statements, has just produced a new independent guide that overturns the official government dangerous drugs classification.  He has added together the ill-effects to both the user and to wider society and concluded that alcohol is more dangerous than heroin, crack or crystal meth. Alcohol is three times more harmful than cocaine and eight-times more damaging than ecstasy or LSD.

Enthusiasts for Dr Nutt say it is good that the drugs debate should be refocused on scientific evaluations rather than social preconceptions and political prejudice. That way objective truth lies.  I am not so sure. Dr Nutt is an expert neuropharmacologist. But his formula for weighting the relative harms includes estimates of each drug’s impact on the NHS, crime, the family, the environment, the economy and more. Political judgements enter into such an attempt to balance harm to individuals and damage to the social fabric.

Critics, who unkindly suggest that Dr Nutt is aptly named, question his weighting formula. They ask whether alcohol is as addictive as heroin. They say is it not politically realistic to suggest that if alcohol had just been discovered it would be banned. It hasn’t just been discovered and it is a relatively harmless pleasure for most people. This is not to deny the case for greater controls over alcohol, the cheapness of its pricing, the inconsistencies in its taxation, the deregulation of licensing hours, and the sweet alcohols which are targeted at the young.  As has been shown on seat-belt wearing, drink-driving and discrimination against ethnic minorities or gays, culture can be changed by law and should be.

So instead of putting 13-year-olds on the pill we need to tackle the far more deep rooted cultural problem of premature sexualisation which robs girls and boys of their childhood. That means limiting the boundaries of sex-obsessed advertising, the hours and places in which it is displayed, and the content of television programme-makers obsessed with grit, realism and relevance. “It is not for the health service to moralise on the rights and wrongs of under-age sex,” the director of public health on the Isle of Wight has said. She is right. That is the job of all of us.

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