Victoria Gillick, a devout Roman Catholic with ten children, was responsible for bringing a legal challenge in the early 1980s against her health authority which had a policy of prescribing contraceptives to underage teenage girls, without their parents’ knowledge. The health authority was complying with a Department of Health circular which stated that the prescription of contraceptives was a matter for the doctor's discretion and that they could be prescribed to under sixteens without parental consent. In her legal challenge Mrs Gillick sought a ruling that the prescription of contraceptives to under age girls must be illegal because the doctor would be committing an offence of encouraging sex with a minor, and that it would be treatment without consent as consent in such a matter rests with the parents.
There was clearly some justification for Mrs Gillick’s concern as parents, in their wish to protect their child’s welfare, would certainly want to be informed about whether their daughters of this age were being prescribed contraceptives. She was supported by many on the right who shared her concerns and wished to bolster traditional sexual morality. However, those on the left were hostile to her campaign, sometimes vociferously so. The case went all the way to the House of Lords which ruled against Mrs Gillick. So what were the arguments that persuaded the Law Lords to effectively condone under age sexual activity and to undermine parental authority in the upbringing of children?
The Law Lords in deciding the case considered that the main issue was whether a female minor was capable of understanding a doctor’s advice and concluded that in respect of contraceptive advice she would be able to do so. In this respect a doctor could provide contraceptives to the minor if the girl could not be persuaded to inform her parents and would be likely to still engage in sexual activity. Additional factors were the potential effects on the physical or mental health of the girl if contraceptive advice was refused. Given these factors the Law Lords concluded that her best interest would be served if contraceptive advice and treatment was given without the parents’ knowledge. As a consequence of this judgement parents cannot prevent minors consenting to family planning treatment if they are of sufficient maturity to decide the matter themselves.
It has to be said that the arguments for and against this decision are finely balanced, and before the case came to the House of Lords, the Court of Appeal took a different view, as did a minority of the Law Lords, one opining that ‘the practice of secretly providing contraceptive services to girls under the age of 16 encourages participation in sexual intercourse which offends basic principles of morality and religion’. This was a viewpoint which Mrs Gillick, motivated by her religion, very much endorsed as sinful, but which was an anathema to progressive thinking of the time.
Nevertheless, the primary risk to be considered is an unwanted pregnancy that will likely cause enormous mental and social problems for a young teen girl. As we have seen from the Rotherham case, it is not possible for parents or guardians to supervise and monitor teenagers all the time, and thus providing contraceptives without parental knowledge is the lesser evil in these circumstances, which moreover demonstrates responsible behaviour. The judgement came down on the side of the autonomy of teenagers to regulate their personal lives on this matter, rather than having it determined for them by parents. This was applauded by progressives but denounced by social conservatives.
Progressive liberal thinking at that time was critical of Mrs Gillick’s objectives. Many of them noted that she took a hostile attitude towards sexual permissiveness and they accused her of being anti-sex. She was denounced in one leftist pamphlet as part of ‘right wingers hang-ups about sex, their objective as far as possible is to stamp out sexual activity outside marriage. This is the main object of their campaigns’. One prominent left wing feminist described her campaign as ‘calling up the social purity movement of the 19th century….to save their daughters from sex’. Agony aunts declared that ‘individuals have the right to choose their lifestyles from about the age of 12 or 13’.
Sentiments such as these were echoed more broadly in the Dame Janet Smith BBC Savile report in which many commentators observed that during this period ‘people were not as aware of the significance of the age of consent as we are today, there was a much more relaxed approach to this question’, and that the important thing was ‘to help the girl avoid pregnancy’. Certainly the prevailing attitude at the time amongst liberals and progressives was that underage sexual activity by young teenagers was not much of an issue, not surprising given their general hostility to what they regarded as the repressive conservative and religious sexual morality which prevailed during the 1950s and earlier, and which they were keen to dismantle through the promotion of sexual permissiveness.
This was all before the paranoia over ‘child sexual abuse’ became established, promoted by children’s charities and adopted by feminists. Under this agenda the incidence and impact of sexual activity by children under the age of puberty is greatly exaggerated with the intention of creating alarm and demonising men, although it is clearly wrong as it must always involve exploitation if an adult is involved. In addition, the definition of a child, requiring state protection and surveillance, has been expanded upwards to include younger teenagers. Since feminism is an integral part of the politically correct agenda, progressives have now adopted the outlook of the moralistic right wingers they once mocked. They are now as virulently hostile to young teenage sexual activity as the traditional conservative moralists, but are much more inclined to use the power of the state to police such activity. As progressives have morphed from free wheeling bohemians into heavy handed puritans, it can only be a matter of time before they succeed in reversing the Gillick judgement, given the calls that it should be made a criminal offence not to report suspicions of ‘child sexual abuse’.