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Monday, 1 January, 2001, 11:30 GMT
Fresh row over morning-after pill
morning after pill
Pharmacies not yet ready to issue morning-after pills
Women will have to wait to get the morning-after pill over the counter, despite changes introduced on New Year's Day.

Officially anyone aged over 16 can now get the morning-after pill over the counter at a pharmacist's without prescription.

But health officials have warned that women will be unlikely to be able to pick it up from most chemists until late January or early February.

The Conservatives have accused Health Secretary Alan Milburn of misleading the public and demanded an apology.


It is very important that women don't go away with the thought that this can terminate a pregnancy. It can't.

Dr Peter Longthorne
The morning-after pill was cleared for over-the-counter sales in chemist shops by the Medicines Control Agency last year.

But manufacturers Schering Healthcare said it took time to distribute the drug and offer training to pharmacists.

Schering's UK medical director Dr Peter Longthorne told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the delay was not unexpected.

"For the last few months everybody has been working to a timescale of the end of January or start of February, so it's not a sudden surprise."

He said the product did not trigger an abortion. "It is very important that women don't go away with the thought that this can terminate a pregnancy. It can't."

Dr Liam Fox
Dr Liam Fox: "The delay may increase unwanted pregnancies"
Shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox claimed ministers had promised the pill would be available from New Year's Day and called for an apology from Mr Milburn.

He said the health secretary had misled the public into believing it would be available when he had known for some time that supplies would be short and pharmacists would not have completed their training.

"It is typical that Alan Milburn and his ministers worry first about getting headlines and give only minimal consideration to the practical implications.

"The result of their incompetence may well be an increase rather than decrease in unwanted pregnancies."


Selling these pills through pharmacists will turn high street chemists into front line abortion providers

Pro-life campaigner Paul Tully

But a Department of Health spokesman dismissed the notion of an unexpected delay.

He said: "We have made it clear in the past that we do not expect these pills to be in the pharmacies until late January or early February."

Mr Milburn cleared the legal barriers with a statutory instrument in Parliament last month.

His comments were supported by Christine Glover, president of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, who said: "Pharmacists have know that it was likely to be the end of this month before it is actually available."

Breathing space

Campaigners against the measure welcomed any delay.

John Smeaton, national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the organisation planned to leaflet outside pharmacies.

SPUC general secretary Paul Tully said the delay in the wider provision of the pills was "a breathing space during which we shall seek to raise public awareness of this potent drug".

He added: "It is quite wrong to describe these pills as emergency contraception. They make the womb hostile to any newly-conceived embryo and thereby cause abortions.

"Selling these pills through pharmacists will turn high street chemists into front-line abortion providers."

But doctors say it does not go far enough.

The British Medical Association has said the government should have made the drug available over-the-counter free of charge to teenagers younger than 16.

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See also:

29 Nov 99 | Medical notes
Emergency contraception
07 Jul 99 | Latest News
Women to get emergency pill
11 Dec 00 | Health
Pill row takes new turn
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