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18 December 2000

At last! A pill giving power to the poor

Control over one's reproductive system is a class issue

By Carol Sarler

Jeannette Kupfermann, white, middle class, blessed with education and, I dare say, a bank balance on the healthy side, was right up there with the vanguard of protest against the advent of the “morning-after” pill. “Yet another blow against the family!” she howled from the pages of Monday’s Daily Mail – although she was not alone. The announcement that, from 1 January, there will be over- the-counter availability of this drug, designed to intervene between unprotected sex and pregnancy, was bound to push all the usual buttons. And so, with tedious predictability, it did.

It was predictable that the fury would spew out, without exception, from those who share Kupfermann’s social status, just as it was predictable that the argument would be as rocky as it was robust. There was unsubstantiated fear-mongering – how do we know it’s safe, just because “they” say it is? There was a nod to values – “putting sex into a moral vacuum”. There was a quick swipe at rap music and pornography because, hey, why not while you’re at it? And all the commentators cited their chief credential, as they always, always do: “Speaking as a mother, I would like to say . . . “

There wasn’t a word of it that we have not heard before from these mothers, who regurgitate the identical script whether we are talking contraception, abortion or medical confidentiality for teenage girls. And the flaw in their script, likewise, is the same old flaw: mothers they may be, but their own daughters have nothing whatsoever to do with the issue at stake.

Control over one’s reproductive system, as well as available coping resources should that control slip, is class-ridden to stink point. And always has been. Long before the Pill joined the party in the 1960s, it was widely accepted that, come a certain age, gymkhana girl would visit Mummy’s private gynaecologist for “a fitting”, there to cross his palm with silver – while sink girl crossed her fingers, instead.

If there was a bit of an oops! nevertheless, gymkhana girl went back to the good old doctor for “a bit of a D & C – women’s stuff, down below, you know” and no further questions asked. Sink sister turned to the gin, the knitting needles and the kitchen table, knowing even as she did so that, at best, she faced indescribable agony and, at worst, she faced death.

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If abortion was out of the question, for any reason, gymkhana girl’s family would have – and still has, today – a network of support. In my own nice Surrey childhood home, we had a cousin from Wales who came to stay for a few months; I clearly remember her getting very fat and spending a tremendous amount of time knitting. Only years later did anybody explain it.

And sink girl? A hostel, perhaps. A shared room, with her baby, in an already overcrowded, underemployed family home. Or, if she’s really, really fortunate, a small flat of her own at the top of a council tower block, where the urine-soaked lift works only sometimes, and where she sits alone all day with a crying child, trying to eke out her pitiful benefits – all the while facing daily accusations in the press that she chose to become pregnant to put herself at the top of the list for such luxury.

(I have often thought, if this lifestyle really is, as the bellowers do bellow, a matter of choice – what on earth were the other choices that the poor young woman rejected as being worse?)

Nor is the class divide just a matter of economic deprivation; there is learning, too. The middle-class mother who reads the newspapers and who follows the medical advances is well placed to advise her daughter. She can establish dialogue based on real information, and it is that same information, I venture to suggest, which allows liberalism to prevail in their home. Not for her daughter the long, scary walk alone to the chemist or the clinic; Mum will be walking right alongside.

Even at school, the differences rule. The sink school, packed to the gills with social problems as it is, is going to have less time to attend to the sexual insecurities of one shy girl, further crippled by embarrassment, than is Roedean – and none but a fool or an optimist pretends otherwise. (I actually know of one case where a girl at a private school was fast-tracked through a course of treatment for venereal disease, lest the antibiotics disturb her equilibrium during the sitting of her GCSEs.)

Kupfermann wrote, in her Daily Mail essay, that “teenage pregnancy often has more to do with low self-esteem, boredom, a lack of goals and poor education”. Indeed. But among her own children and their friends? I think not. And I’m damned sure she thinks not, too. She and her fellow critics know full well that, on the one hand, their daughters are less likely than most to “get into trouble” in the first place – and that, on the other, if they do they will be able to reach out for help and guidance with ease and with certainty that their needs will be met.

Our other girl citizens, deprived of such money, support or know-how, will be left to fend for themselves – and anything the rest of us can provide for them, be it free walk-in clinics, non-judgemental advisers, safe and reliable contraception or the easy availability of an emergency morning-after pill, we should provide it.

It is the very least we can do, and it ill behoves any of us who are privileged to advocate a removal of such resources from the less fortunate.

For a young, working-class woman to be able to control her own fertility means being able to seize power over her life and her destiny – and even, just perhaps, to change it. You can’t help wondering, sometimes, whether that is precisely what so frightens her middle-class detractors.

Carol Sarler is a columnist on the Daily Express