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Monday, 05 April 2004

Abstaining from bad reporting

The Times chose to kick the week off with the lead story that "Free pills and condoms 'boost promiscuity'":

GOVERNMENT attempts to reduce high-risk sexual behaviour among teenagers have had exactly the opposite effect, according to an authoritative new study.
Expanding contraceptive services and providing the morning-after pill free to teenagers have encouraged sexual behaviour rather than reducing it, according to economists at Nottingham University.

This isn't much of a big deal, and it shouldn't be a surprise. The study quoted by the Times, authored by David Patton, of Nottingham University, found that "teenage sexual behaviour appears to be little different to other fields in at least one important respect: incentives matter to teenagers too" - if you decrease the cost of birth control to teenagers, then as wonderful rational actors, use goes up. I'd link to the report, but it doesn't seem to be available online yet.

So far, so good. But the problem here is that certain methods of birth control, say, the contraceptive pill, aren't that good at preventing STIs. In fact, they're not good at preventing STIs at all, whereas barrier methods such as the condom are.

The real problem is the way the Times chose to illustrate the story. Now, I'm perfectly willing to attribte this to an overzealous picture editor who just looked for something nice to put on the front cover, but this just takes the biscuit. The picture was part of the NHS's "Sex Lottery" campaign, specially targetted at increasing awarness of STIs and the fact that condoms, as a barrier method contraceptive, would work in preventing the spread of STIs. Only the caption below the 3/4 page illustration said something along the lines of "In areas where government sexual health campaigns such as the above were run, the incidence of STIs increased" [THIS ISN'T WHAT THE CAPTION WAS - I DON'T HAVE A COPY OF THE PAPER WITH ME, AND WILL INSERT THE ORIGINAL CAPTION TEXT LATER (Edit: see the update at the end of this entry)].

Let's just go over that one more time. The Times quoted study found that a side-effect of "providing the morning-after pill free to teenagers have encouraged sexual behaviour rather than reducing it". Now, apart from equating supplying the morning-after pill with the Government's "entire sexual health strategy", apart from equating the morning-after pill with all contraception, apart from the frankly alarming quote from Robert Whelan of Civitas saying we should be promoting abstinence, we know that the morning-after pill doesn't prevent STIs. Condoms will. And the Government, has (surprise of all surprises) a programme tackling this and increasing awareness.

Which the Times uses to illustrate its point that the Government's strategy is in tatters.

I really am getting sick of the Times.

Update: 6 April 2004, 21:01 BST: The Times's caption was "A poster promoting condom use. Sexually transmitted infections rose fastest where such campaigns were most intense." I can't answer this. I really can't.

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