The morning after pill is to be given out free over the phone for the first time, under a scheme to be announced today.
By Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor
10:00PM GMT 05 Dec 2011
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) will encourage women to stock up on the emergency contraceptive over the Christmas period.
They will have to register their details on a website and will be phoned by a nurse for a 15-minute consultation intended to weed out young teenagers and assess suitability.
However, the charity has admitted that under-age girls will almost certainly obtain pills through the scheme by lying to them. Some children “will not be completely honest about their age”, a spokesman said. Under-16s would usually need a prescription to prevent a possible pregnancy in this way.
Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, said last night that he would prefer the pills to be issued after a face-to-face consultation but stopped short of saying he would intervene.
Other critics likened the scheme to dialling for a pizza and warned that teenagers would abuse it to obtain the morning after pill without their parents’ knowledge. They said it could fuel promiscuity and encourage unprotected sex, risking a rise in sexually transmitted diseases. BPAS said the service was vital at a time when many surgeries and pharmacies would be closed and because chemists’ shops charged up to £25 for the emergency contraceptive, too expensive for some women.
Some high street pharmacies already offer a similar service for a fee but the BPAS service is understood to be the first not to charge.
Chemists’ have been allowed to sell the morning after pill without a prescription to over-16s since 2001. Last year almost 250,000 doses were issued in England. But recent studies have found that providing the pills has failed to cut rates of conception. A review published last year by the Cochrane Library concluded that women who received an advance supply of the morning after pill had the same chance of becoming pregnant as those who did not have early access to the contraceptive.
BPAS, which runs a network of abortion clinics, said its nurses would be trained to spot under-16s trying to use the new service. They would discuss long-term contraception with women who are approved, then send the pills in the post with condoms and advice leaflets.
Tracey Forsyth, the charity’s lead contraception nurse, said: “The morning after pill can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, but the sooner it is taken the better and having it at home means you are much more likely to take it as soon as you need it.
“Sometimes women worry that requesting the pill in advance makes it look like you are planning on taking chances. In fact the opposite is true – making sure you have a back-up to help prevent an unwanted pregnancy is making sure nothing is left to chance.”
Mr Lansley said: “Emergency contraception is intended to be exactly that – for emergencies, not everyday use.
“Ideally, it would be better for the morning after pill to be made available in person, which would mean any decisions were taken with the benefit of face-to-face advice.” Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP who tried earlier this year to change the law to introduce independent counselling for women seeking abortions, said that she backed the morning after pill as emergency contraception but objected to it being ordered in advance.
“I don’t believe that to be able to order it in advance is an appropriate use,” she said. “There are plenty of other forms of contraception already available.”
Michaela Aston, spokesman for the pro-life charity, Life, said the new service made getting the pills as easy as ordering a pizza. She said: “There are absolutely no guarantees that under-age girls won’t
be given this pill, as there are no checks on their age carried out by BPAS.
“Parents of under-age girls have no voice with this scheme. What parent wouldn’t be horrified if they knew their daughter was ordering the morning after pill for Christmas?”
Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, said: “When the morning after pill was first approved for use in the UK, assurances were given that it would be used only in exceptional circumstances and would remain a prescription-only drug under the control of doctors.
“Not only is it now being marketed as a ‘just-in-case’ drug and supplied free of charge, but BPAS’s telephone service will inevitably lead to underage girls lying about their age in order to access it.”
Josephine Quintavalle, founder of the Pro-life Alliance, said: “BPAS won’t have any idea about what is really going on with the caller. She could be having underage sex. She could sell it to a friend.”
Some 189,574 abortions were performed in 2010, up 0.3 per cent on 2009 and 8 per cent on 2000.
Of those, 3,718 were to girls under 16, 12,742 to those aged 16 and 17, and 21,809 were to women aged 18 and 19.