Why free contraceptives are more important than you think

Some people are currently following the election avidly, others prefer to watch from a distance and get the main gist of things. Whether or not you are a political fanatic, most would agree that this election is monotonous compared to previous elections. There are a vast number of reasons why this may be the case, but we can have a fruitful discussion about this on another day. 

You  may be curious to hear what those stuffing our post boxes like a Christmas turkey with leaflets (ironic as it may be) are promising us. The very least we can do is take the time to judge them before we fulfill our democratic obligation to vote. The average joe was not expecting much, but as it happened, many others withdrew their objections when the leaders of the political parties responded to a question about sexual health during a debate organised at the University of Malta. Both the Prime Minister, Robert Abela and the Leader of the Opposition Bernard Grech, made some good points, but the impetus behind their pledges, may be the distinguishing factor. 

For politicians, this issue may not have been at the top of their agenda, but for women and everyone who needs this, this is finally a breath of fresh air. Often, we have seen comments such as ‘do they really need contraception for free?’ ‘Is the Morning After Pill an abortifacient?’, the answer is yes and no respectively. Cost-effective policies which make these essential services accessible to everyone and put women in control over their own bodies are important. Let’s explain why.

Cost-effective policies which make these essential services accessible to everyone and put women in control over their own bodies are important.

What are they proposing?

In a nutshell, the Prime Minister said that the current National Sexual Health Strategy, which has been critised as byzantine and out of touch with the reality of today’s societal needs, will be revamped, and contraceptives (IUDs, Contraceptive Pill) and the Morning After Pill will be provided for free. Bernard Grech made the same proposal, but gave a bit of a different reason: that these will prevent the need for abortion to enter Malta in the future. Abortion, what?

The Prime Minister said that he is still against abortion in principle, however, he also said that he is willing and open to discuss the subject without any prejudice and that it is not his place (or anyone’s for that matter) place to judge those who need or have undergone one. Grech on the other hand reiterated that he is against abortion. That’s all well and good.

Some contraceptive methods are not only for preventing pregnancy

Some contraceptive medications such as the contraceptive pills, are not designed solely to prevent pregnancy. Research carried out by the Guttmacher Institute shows that apart from preventing pregnancy, approximately one third of women use birth control medication to relieve menstrual cramps and behind that, 28% use it to reduce a heavy period flow. 

Other important reasons include, treating medical conditions, such as endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, as well as  treating chronic acne. So, scientific evidence quite literally, shows us that contraception prevents pregnancy, but can also treat problems which many women may face on a daily basis, some which can also affect how comfortably they live their lives.

“Just because you can get the bag, doesn’t mean I can”

Some of us often assume that because we have the luxury of affording certain things which are essential for our health, we have food on the table for our family and a lovely piece of clothing which has stalked us in our dreams ever since we have seen it, everyone else can probably afford it too. But the truth is the opposite sentiment: many cannot always afford contraception, and that there is not enough delivered information about contraceptives. Data published by the European Union Statistical Office (Eurostat) show that Malta has a higher average birth rate of teenage pregnancies than the EU average. 

Data published by Eurostat show that Malta has a higher average birth rate of teenage pregnancies than the EU average.

There could be a myriad of reasons for such a high teen pregnancy rate, but there are things which the state can take upon itself to ensure that this rate is stabilised. If and when a newly regenerated national sexual health strategy is implemented, sexual health education will be  revamped once and for all, and  it must be seen that implementation is effective and not put there for everyone to take a piece of the cake, and do what they will. Education and information help one determine which method of contraception is the most effective for their particular case, after all, all methods have side effects. 

Having access to free contraception gives one the option to choose and make plans for the future. It is crucial in giving women the freedom to make their own family planning decisions. Removing barriers to access includes free or low cost contraception freedom. At present, there is no reimbursement for young people or anyone, when it comes to the coverage of contraception and Malta’s contraceptive policy ranks 64% on the Contraception Policy Atlas by the European Parliament Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

The Morning After Pill is secretly an abortifacient = Fact or Conspiracy?

So both parties believe that contraceptives and the Morning After Pill should be given for free, but each has different reasons. Upon this announcement by the Labour Party, which was a result of a position taken by Nisa Laburisti in 2020, the Nationalist Party seems to be perceiving the idea as a tug of war on originality.  But, political petulance or ‘me first, me first!’ is not the issue today. The heart of the matter is why the right position matters and why having access to free contraception and the Morning After Pill matters, more than anyone may think.

During the aforementioned debate, not surprisingly, a particular candidate claimed that his party is against the Morning After Pill because it is secretly an abortifacient. Let’s debunk this: The Morning After Pill is ineffective once ovulation (when the egg is released from the ovary) takes place and it does not prevent the implantation of the fertilised egg. This scientific statement is backed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the World Health Organization

But the Morning After Pill only became available in Malta in 2016. And till today, there are difficulties in accessing this method of emergency contraception. A report released in 2021 showed that only an average 61% of pharmacies would sell the Morning After Pill on a Sunday. The report gave some observations which strengthen the need for better sexual health education in schools, including that not every woman may fully know how to calculate the fertile period during her menstrual cycle.

Where do we stand?

This week, a far-right political party initiated criminal proceedings against pro-choice organisations. Their reason? The organisations’ joint initiative in providing family planning services to vulnerable women. This same party publicly said that the Morning After Pill should be banned because of its (unproven and unsubstantiated) abortive effects. In a surprising turn of events, Abela strongly condemned this political party’s frivolous act and labelled this scaremongering tactic as one that incites fear. 

But what can we do? On the 26th of March, we have an opportunity to decide on the type of future we want. Do we want women who help those who do not have the same luxuries as we do to fall foul because of obscene anti-progressive and internecine politics? Or turn our vote into a useful arena to open the doors for social justice and assure that everyone has access to the treatment that they need? The state releasing contraception and the Morning-After Pill of its financial and accessibility barriers should be free of prejudice. Any initiative for it, should be praised, not ostracised.

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