December 1 1999

A drive to cut teenage pregnancy rates is under fire, reports Charles Bremner

French schools to provide morning-after pill

A DECISION to make the morning-after Pill freely available to French schoolgirls has sparked opposition from the country's leading parents' group and conservative politicians.

In an attempt to curb teenage pregnancies, the Education Ministry is to instruct school nurses to stock the Pill in their medicine chests and supply it to girls who come to them after unprotected sex.

The measure, announced by Segolene Royal, the Schools Minister, follows France's action last June in allowing chemists to sell the Pill without prescription. No other European state has allowed free sale of the morning-after treatment, a course of two Pills which impedes pregnancy for up to 72 hours after sex.

While welcomed by the main teachers' unions and family planning authorities, the decision has drawn the fire of PEEP, the main association of parents of children in state schools. "We are worried because this Pill risks making unprotected sex routine," said Christian Janet, the association's president.

The FCPE, a rival parents' federation, said that it reluctantly accepted the decision but noted that it underlined a failure to inform adolescents of the risks of unprotected sex.

The order to nurses, made as France marks the 25th anniversary of its legalisation of abortion, was attacked by conservative politicians as a further erosion of parental rights.

Christine Boutin, a leading member of the centre-right UDF opposition, said that Mme Royal's decision amounted to "social, medical and ethical fraud".

But Mme Royal said that the Government wanted to make it as easy as possible for girls to obtain quick help and it had decided against requiring nurses to refer teenagers to family planning centres first.

"It is better that a girl can talk about her problems with the nurse than with her chums in the playground," she said. Under the new regulation, to take effect next year, nurses will offer to inform the girl's parents and will direct her to counselling at a family planning centre.

France has been in the forefront of big European states in adopting an aggressive approach to contraception and sexual information for adolescents.

Girls have long been able to obtain the contraceptive Pill without the consent of their parents. Britain records a teenage pregnancy rate three times higher than France. However, the authorities are alarmed at the country's continuing high rate, which leads to 6,700 abortions a year for girls under 18.

As in other countries, the authorities report growing pressure on girls to have sex. Mme Royal said: "Our first task is to teach them how to say no and not sacrifice themselves to group pressure."

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