Figures have proved Victoria Gillick right and her opponents wrong. Peter Stanford looks at where next for her campaign. NEWS ANALYSIS
YOU have to hand it to Victoria Gillick. Her opponents said that the only tangible "success" of her long legal battle to stop the prescription of contraceptives to girls under 16 without their parents' consent would be a boom in unwanted teenage pregnancies and abortions.
Nonsense retorted Mrs Gillick in typically robust fashion. And last week the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys gave her the figures that bear out her confidence. "A blinding flash of the obvious" for her detractors, she called it.
Between December 1984 and October 1985 an appeal court ruling in Mrs Gillick's favour halted the prescription of the pill to under age girls without parental knowledge. In that period the number of conceptions in this group remained at the same rate per 1,000 girls aged 13-15 throughout 1985 as it had been in 1984 namely 2.2. A slight drop in actual numbers of conceptions was accounted for by the drop in the number of girls in that age group.
In that same period of the appeal court judgement, 25,000 girls came off the pill according to Mrs Gillick's estimates. To her these figures make plain that these girls stopped having sex. "If they were bright enough to get the pill in secret, they're not likely to get pregnant just to spite me", she said of these who had asserted that girls would continue having sex with or without contraception.
The fact that the rate has stayed stable for teenage conceptions shows that there is a care group of young girls who will have sex regardless of taking precautions, and will always get pregnant, to Mrs Gillick's mind. The only way to tackle this group would be "a concerted campaign against promiscuity", a push to "dispute the fashion" and to point out to impressionable young people that far from being glamorous, under-age sex in fact brought with it the threat of cervical cancer and other diseases.
Attendance of under age girls at DHSS clinics in the first nine months of 1985 fell from 18,000 to 12,000, while the Brook Advisory Clinics, the country's leading contraceptive and pregnancy advisory service for young people, saw patients drop by 43 per cent in this age group at its centres in the first six months. No figures are available nationwide for under 16s at GP's surgeries requesting contraceptive advice, but Mrs Gillick bases her estimates on a survey carried out among family practitioners in Sheffield.
Alison Hadley, a spokesperson for the Brook, did not feel that Mrs Gillick had proved her case despite the statistics published by the OPCS. The period of the appeal court ruling was just nine months, she pointed out and suggested that had its restrictions lasted longer a notable rise might have been seen in under age conceptions.
She disputed Mrs Gillick's figures for numbers coming off the pill. There was no evidence, she claimed, to say that young people stopped having sex in this period. They may have selected their parent's consent, or else used alternative form of contraception like a condom. They may well have stored up supplies of the pill that saw them over this period.
In the absence of any specific studies to back up either these assertions or Mrs Gillick's conflicting claim that girls had stopped having sex, Brook took the stance that the OPCS figures alone were not enough to justify any change in the law regarding prescription of the pill to under 16s. There is a body of research, they emphasised, to show that once teenagers start having sexual relations, they don't stop. Last week's figures are not enough to dispute that long-term evidence.
However, to return to our starting point, it cannot be ignored that the opponents of Victoria Gillick's vociferous and very public campaign, whatever the research they had done, clearly stated at the time her appeal court triumph that teenage conceptions and abortions would go up. In fact we even had stories circulated in some papers of teenage suicides because of the ruling. They were never backed up by hard facts.
It would seem for the time being that right, and the weight of evidence would rest in Mrs Gillick's court in the wake of the publication of last week's statistics.
That such a seasoned campaigner will fail to press home her advantage is inconceivable. The possibility of a parliamentary private member's bill to reinforce the overturned appeal court ruling has been muted.
However, there is one thing that no figures can alter. Children have rights of their own. They are not objects at other people's disposal be it their parents', judges', Brook clinics' or whoever. Society has a duty towards children. Medical evidence would show that teenage sex with its overtones of early condition, pregnancy, cervical cancer and the like, is not good for the health of its practioners, and hence it could be argued that society has a duty to protect them from it.
Society likewise has a duty to protect children from sexual abuse. The Cleveland case has opened the eyes of a society too long blind or oblivious to this disaster within the family. The worst scenario of Mrs Gillick's pioneering concern and of her campaign would be that children could not go to a doctor without their parents' knowledge under the age of 16, that a potential victim of abuse would be afraid that he or she could not rely on a doctor's confidentiality.
Such an outcome is the last thing that Victoria Gillick would want. In pursuing her campaign in the wake of the very real boost it has been given this week, she must beware of such a conclusion when dealing with an issue that is caught in a labyrinth of other associated and acute medical dilemmas.