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Opinion, Comment & Reviews

Emergency contraception, over-the-counter provision, and Tony Blair's 'moral concerns'
By Ellie Lee

At the beginning of this week, strong support for for the over-the-counter provision of emergency contraception in pharmacies was offered by both the British Medical Association and the All-Party Pharmacy Group.

In a news release, issued on Monday 28 February, John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA's General Practitioners Committee said: 'We strongly support the proposal (from the All Party Pharmacy Group) that post coital contraception should be available from pharmacies. We believe that supplies should be available at no cost to the patient in the same way that post coital contraception already is available free of charge from GPs'.

The BMA comment was made following the release of a report to health ministers from the Parliamentary All-Party Pharmacy Group. The report noted that the Group met on February 2 to 'discuss the subject of emergency contraception. A wide range of experts and interested parties were invited to observe the meeting and participate in discussion'. The report goes on to note that a consensus emerged on a number of points, including that emergency contraception 'is one important means of preventing unwanted pregnancy, but it needs to be more readily available to those women who require it'. The recommendation was made that 'emergency hormonal contraception should be available to women from community pharmacies without the need for prescription'.

However, it was reported today (3 March) that Tony Blair is 'worried about the moral implications of allowing the [emergency contraceptive] pill to become available over the counter'. According to the Daily Telegraph, while health ministers support easing access to ECPs, the Prime Minister does not share their outlook. A six-month consultation exercise with the public is to begin in April, to discuss whether over-the-counter provision should go ahead.

BPAS, Britain's largest provider of abortion services has said in response that it welcomes reports that Health Ministers are to consult the public on whether to make emergency contraception available through pharmacies. But they are concerned that the Prime Minister is said to be worried about the 'moral implications' of making after-sex contraception available in this way. Ann Furedi, BPAS director of communications said:

'Decisions about the way the emergency contraception is supplied should be based on clinical considerations about the products safety and effectiveness - not on speculation about whether it will encourage people to have sex. WHO studies have already shown that emergency contraceptive pills are 50 per cent more effective when taken within the first twelve hours of unprotected sex and pharmacy provision is essential to allow women to use the pills this quickly. Politicians need to consider the 'moral implications' of obstructing women's effective use of a safe and highly acceptable means to prevent unwanted pregnancy. How can it be ethical to obstruct women's access to emergency contraception by imposing unnecessary restrictions on the way that it is provided?'

'Public to be consulted on sale of morning-after pill', Daily Telegraph, 3/2/2000
'BMA supports emergency contraception from pharmacists', News release, BMA, 28/2/2000
'The supply of emergency contraception through community pharmacies, A report to health ministers', All-Party Pharmacy Group
'Prime minister is wrong to have moral concerns about emergency contraception, says British Pregnancy Advisory Service', News Release, BPAS, 3/2/2000

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