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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 18:23 GMT
Dutch abandon free contraception for all

Angus Roxburgh
BBC News Online, Amsterdam

The Netherlands once had the lowest teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in Europe. Its policies of widespread sexual health education and freely available contraception were widely praised. But not any more.

Young mothers with pushchairs
Unwanted pregnancies are on the rise
"Until the mid-nineties we were a model," says Dr Rik van Lunsen, president of the Dutch Society for Contraception.

"Now we would say: 'Don't copy us.'"

He is referring above all to the approach of the Christian Democrat-led government which has been in office since the summer of 2002.

"The government is giving the impression they do not think that sexual health is important," says van Lunsen.

An example is a new law which came into force on 1 January, ending decades of freely available contraception to all women.

Now women over the age of 21 must pay for the pill and other means of birth-control.

Van Lunsen says he fears there will be a resulting surge in abortions, especially among those who cannot afford to pay.

"Often immigrants are very careless, especially the young ones, 13 and 14 years old - the men don't like using condoms
Rutgers Foundation analyst Mieke van Kooten Niekerk
Abortion rates have already been rising steadily in Holland in the past decade.

In 1990 there were 5.2 abortions per 1000 women. That rose to 8.7 in 2002.

In Belgium, by contrast, the figure had dropped to 5.7 in 1997.

As for teenage pregnancies, in women aged 15-19 in Holland, the number has swelled from 10 per 1000 in 1992 to 16.2 in 2001 and 2002.

The number of unwanted pregnancies has been growing particularly fast among Holland's ethnic minorities.

Women from Surinam, Turkey, Morocco and especially the Dutch Caribbean, including those born in Holland, have far more abortions than "ethnic" Dutch women - some 60% of the total.

Immigrant cultures

Mieke van Kooten Niekerk of the Rutgers Foundation, which carries out research into sexual problems, says immigrants have different norms and standards from their Dutch counterparts.

"Often they are very careless, especially the young ones, 13 and 14 years old. The men don't like using condoms. And there is not such a taboo surrounding teenage pregnancy."

Ms van Kooten says girls from Holland's ethnic minorities live in two cultures - the conservative one of their parents and the open one of Dutch society.

"It is not easy to reach them with sex education. It is not even taught in schools where the population is overwhelmingly immigrant."

If it is more difficult to get contraception, then we are on the wrong path in Holland
Sexual health expert Annet Jansen
The Institute for the Promotion of Sexual Health tries to organise discussions among young Moroccans, but they say it is a hard task, because the tendency in these cultures is to shy away from open discussion of sexual matters.

For decades, gay teachers were open about their sexuality in school.

Now, in the so-called "black" schools, with many immigrant students, they tend to hide it.

"We just don't reach these people," says Cecile Wijsen, a researcher at the Rutgers Foundation.

"Asylum-seekers, for instance, arrive here, sometimes pregnant already. We don't know who they are, and therefore have no way of helping them or educating them."

Education gap

She says the Dutch authorities have become complacent and stopped offering the kind of educational programmes that used to be common.

She has one hope: "Maybe things will start to get better again now that people are talking about the problem and aware that things are getting worse."

The new attitude has been creeping in over the years, even before the new administration took over.

Annet Jansen of Amsterdam's Centre for Sexual Health says the Rutgers Foundation used to run a good programme for schools, which covered the emotional aspects of sex as well as the physical, but the government stopped financing it, so it ended.

She too is highly critical of the government's decision to end the universal provision of free contraception.

"If it is more difficult to get contraception, then we are on the wrong path in Holland. It used to be easily available to rich and poor. Now it will get worse."

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