BY AMELIA CROSBY
It was revealed last week that Boots, the largest high street pharmacy in the UK, is selling emergency contraceptive medication at four times the cost price and had refused requests to join a nationwide initiative to cease profiting financially in this way.
It started when the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) backed by the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party wrote to Boots Chief Pharmacist Marc Donovan requesting a reduction in the price of the emergency hormone contraception (EHC), also known as the morning after pill. Marc Donovan’s response to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service was that Boots did not want to be accused of “incentivising inappropriate use” of the EHC.
Labour MPs including Jess Phillips, Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman wrote an open letter to Boots to condemn its pricing, stating “it is completely unacceptable that British women have been paying £30 for a pill that costs a fraction of that price to produce. The high cost of emergency contraception at Boots is preventing women from accessing it when needed.” Stella Creasy encouraged her followers on Twitter to boycott the store as did many campaigners and feminists.
Realising the magnitude of the damage to the brand, and of course sales dropping, Boots had no choice but to quickly issue an apology “for causing offence and misunderstanding”, narrowly avoiding a nationwide boycott of the company. Let’s face it, this was an argument it was never going to win – how dare Boots take a moral stand and interfere with women’s sexual freedom in 2017?
I am all for women’s sexual freedom but I question what message the Women’s PLP and BPAS is trying to achieve by forcing not only Boots but all pharmacies to make the morning after pill as cheap as possible and to make it more readily accessible to all. It is not a form of regular contraception and contains a high dose of the active ingredient levonorgestrel, which is a synthetic derivative of the naturally occurring female sex hormone progesterone. It works by preventing ovulation and fertilisation, or by altering the lining of the womb to prevent implantation of a fertilised ovum, depending on which stage of the menstrual cycle the woman is in. The side effects associated with taking it include migraine, nausea, abdominal pain, irregular bleeding, and fatigue.
BPAS and the Women’s PLP are treating EHC no differently to a packet of paracetamol, forcing commercial pharmacies to reduce the price in the name of sexual freedom and labelling anyone that gets in the way a “patronising sexist”. Their call for EHC to be easily accessible, as in other countries where women can pick it up for as little as £5.50 as in France and off the shelf in the US, is a disservice to women. It is trivialising taking the morning after pill, it means sex is no big deal and potentially opens young girls to abuse in that any evidence of sexual abuse or risk of pregnancy could be covered up with the purchase of a pill.
Prior to 2001, women had to see their GP or attend a Sexual Health Clinic to obtain a prescription for EHC, since then women have the option to bypass their GP and purchase the morning after pill over the counter through a pharmacist. If they don’t like being asked “embarrassing questions” they can bypass the pharmacist and just order on-line. Indeed, there are various websites that promote bulk purchases to lower the cost and even some websites that promote buying the morning after pill in advance to keep on stand-by for any eventuality.
I know intelligent women who in the throes of passion, throw caution to the wind knowing that any risk of pregnancy can be fixed with a “magic pill” the next day. I know men who will coerce a woman into having unprotected sex as any chance of pregnancy can be halted by swallowing a pill within seventy-two hours. A topsy-turvy and an irresponsible approach to contraception has emerged with easy access to EHC. It is no coincidence that the rise in demand for the morning after pill has also matched a rise in sexually transmitted diseases.
A study by Professor David Paton at the University of Nottingham found that areas which operate a pharmacy emergency birth control (EBC) scheme, whereby women have easy and free access to the morning after pill saw an overall increase of 12% in the rate of STIs.
The manufacturers assure us that it is safe to use with no evidence of any long- term side effects. However, it advises against regular usage and we know that in the UK prices were deliberately kept high to prevent its over use. Women will only know when they are ready to conceive if altering the natural balance of their hormones has affected their chances of conceiving a baby in the future when it may be too late. It is wonderful that women can avoid embarrassing questions and have access to EHC on demand however, if BPAS and the Women’s PLP truly want to liberate women with sexual freedom, they should jolly well encourage women to have the confidence to answer questions which are designed for their well-being – not avoid them.
Of course, accidents occur whether from a one-night stand or in a long-term relationship, I am in no way suggesting that women should be judged on requesting EHC, but I urge BPAS and the Women’s PLP not to trivialise the purpose of the morning after pill. It is not a routine form of contraception nor should it be used in this way to gain sexual freedom. True sexual freedom for women is being fully informed of their choices and receiving ready guidance on long term contraception and protection from sexually transmitted diseases.
Amelia Crosby is a Country Squire Magazine Guest writer and mother of four. She lives in Shropshire and works for the NHS.