Last month I was at the lively, energetic Bloomsbury Pro-Choice Alliance counter protest to the 40 Days of Life vigil that was held outside the BPAS service in Bedford Square. It was fantastic to see hundreds of men and women out to defend and protect women’s reproductive rights. The pro-choice movement should be proud of the numbers and the positivity of those came out to show their support.
But the Bloomsbury event and the ongoing noise about sexual rights including gay equality makes me angry: Angry that women’s right to choose is under such attack yet again and angry at the lack of trust in young people, women and health and education professionals.
I shouldn’t really be surprised. This lack of trust in young people and their developing sexuality is perennial. The persistent attacks on abortion provision have always demonstrated a lack of faith in women’s ability to make their own reproductive choices. And public trust in professionals is constantly undermined by insidious reporting on the sexual health and education of children and young people.
This lack of trust results in a vocal, spiteful and noisy minority in despair about the immorality of youth. They lay the blame squarely at the feet of organisations like Brook, on sex and relationships education, the availability of contraception, the internet and what is now increasingly referred to as the “sexualisation” of young people. Their moral outrage drives their desire for a return to the illusionary halcyon days when young people waited until marriage for sex; when women didn’t have abortions because they weren’t legal; when a child of 7 didn’t need to know what a penis or vagina was because the wicked internet didn’t exist and neither of course did sexual abuse. They long for the days when pregnant women went into hiding and had their children taken away, whilst gay men and women had the decorum not to flaunt their love in public.
Whilst this small, ill-informed and vocal minority increasingly find their voice, it is critical we remember there is a broad consensus in support of fair and equal rights, good quality sex and relationships education and access to services, including abortion services. And despite this consensus there is still a risk that the trust in young people and the professionals who work with them will continue to be undermined. At Brook week in, week out we see thousands of young people who are making moral and responsible decisions about sex and relationships. Yes, they need a guiding hand, an empathic and well trained professional who can ensure they understand their rights, have the information they need, and the confidence, skills and abilities to make choices that are right for them.
Of course there are also some who are frightened or confused, who don’t know how their bodies work, or feel uncomfortable in their skins. We also see those who are exploited, hurt, those settling for sex or relationships that aren’t good enough. These young people need more from us and need help and support at home, at school and from other services.
Young people know they are not trusted by many and their trust in us can also be frail. We know that for young people to continue accessing services, they must trust they will not be judged, that they will be cared for, supported and respected and they will be treated in confidence. They also expect us to protect them from harm and take all necessary steps to do so - a responsibility I know professionals take very seriously
The trust young people have in Brook, and other agencies including the NHS must be protected and maintained at all costs, and that is why I am so angry at people who undermine it whether by myth making about sex and relationships education or by harassing people entering sexual health services – something we know young people can find intimidating or frightening.
It is not acceptable under any circumstances to stand outside an abortion clinic or a young people’s sexual health service, and harass people as they enter. I was recently told of a confident and assured young woman who had to cover her face with a coat, and have support from by a member of staff to get through the door because she was being prayed for loudly and –worse still – photographed. That is simply wrong.
My concern that we are seeing a subtle change with the vocal minority becoming more vociferous was reiterated at a parliamentary briefing yesterday morning. If, at the same time as we are seeing an increase in anti-abortion protests, sex and relationships education in schools becomes politicised and undermined; if GPs are not supported to provide what young people want in sexual healthcare, and specialist services for young people reduce because of funding cuts we will have some serious work to do to protect young people’s sexual health.
All of us want to stop that happening because we want young people and women to be safe. Our critical starting point then is one of trust – we must trust women to make their choices, trust parents, teachers and health professionals to do their jobs, and trust young people to be responsible about sex, sexuality and relationships.