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Opinion, Comment & Reviews

Contraceptive decisions are a matter of individual choice, says Judge
By Ellie Lee
April 19, 2002

The case brought by the anti-abortion organisation SPUC, to attempt to have over-the-counter sale of emergency contraceptive pills banned, has been rejected by the High Court Judge, Mr Justice Munby. In a ruling in which, according to the Telegraph, Munby put forward a 'robust rejection of SPUC's legal argument' and which The Guardian termed a 'categorical rejection' of their case, clearly presented contraceptive decisions as a matter of individual choice. Some extracts from the ruling are:

'I have to say that I cannot see that it is any part of the responsibilities of public authorities - let alone the criminal law -to be telling adult people whether they can or cannot use contraceptive devices of the kind which I have been considering.'

'It is, it seems to me, for individual men and women, acting in what they believe to be good conscience, applying those standards, which they think appropriate, and in consultation with appropriate professional (and if they wish, spiritual) advisers, to decide whether of not to use IUDs, the pill, the mini-pill and the morning after pill. It is no business of government, judges or the law'.

Beyond ensuring that medicines are safe, 'It seems to me, that in this as in other areas of medical ethics, respect for the personal autonomy which our law has now come to recognise demands that the choice be left to the individual'.

This judgement is clearly a positive one for those who uphold the idea of autonomy in reproduction. The outcome regarding ECP is the best that could be wished for from this point of view, but also clearly draws attention to the problem of the legal framework in Britain on abortion; one that continues to regulate abortion under the criminal law, through which public authority (in the form of Parliament) continues to take the responsibility of telling adult people whether they can or cannot end an unwanted pregnancy, and which offers no respect to the principle of personal autonomy and choice. Surely it is time for the gaping disparity between the civilised principles that now inform medial ethics in general, and the nature of British abortion law, to be confronted.

Sarah Boseley, 'Judge rejects ban on morning-after pill'. The Guardian, 19 April, 2002.
Nicole Martin, 'Judge clears sale of 'morning-after' pill, The Daily Telegraph, 19 April, 2002

For further comment on this case, link to SPUC legal challenge on Emergency Contraception.

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