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BMA Conference Monday, 2 July, 2001, 13:40 GMT 14:40 UK
Emergency contraception 'should be free'
Emergency contraception
Doctors want emergency contraception to be free from chemists
By BBC News Online's Caroline Ryan in Bournemouth

Emergency contraception should be available free at pharmacists, doctors have decided.

At the moment, women either have to pay 20 for the emergency contraception over the counter, or go to a GP and obtain a prescription.

At its annual conference in Bournemouth, the British Medical Association voted in favour of the motion that would allow women to access the "morning-after pill" from chemists without having to pay a fee.

However, an impassioned debate saw some doctors argue teenagers needed the counselling and advice, which only a doctor could give.

Kate Duffield, a medical student, said emergency hormonal contraceptive was available, but, at 30 over the Internet, or 20 from the doctor, it was of little use to poor women.

'Discrimination'

Ms Duffield said evidence had shown that the pill, which can be taken up to 72 hours after intercourse, was more likely to be effective the earlier it was taken.

And she said the need for a doctor's appointment meant poorer women may have to wait longer to obtain it than those who could pay.

Urging the conference to back free postcoital contraception, she said: "What we're saying is the less money you have, the more likely you are to stay pregnant.

"The status quo is unequal and discriminatory."

Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA's GPs' committee, said family doctors had supported free emergency hormonal contraception since 1995.

He said evidence showed was most requested by women aged between 25 and 29 - not teenagers.

Dr Alanah Houston, a GP from Milton Keynes, said: "Women on low incomes still have no option but to try to make an appointment at an overcrowded GP surgery because they cannot afford the 20 price over the counter."

That was leading to more work for GPs or forcing women to busy hospital Casualty departments in a bid to get a prescription.

Pills 'not Smarties'

But Dr Helena McKeown, a sexual health doctor who runs after-school clinics, told how she worked in a teenage pregnancy "blackspot", which had recently seen two 13-year-old girls become pregnant.

She said emergency contraception should only be issed following detailed advice from a doctor.

"In my experience, pharmacists do not provide the privacy to say these two little pills are not Smarties, might fail, and will not prevent pregnancy for the rest of the month.

"These young people need to have very clear explanations.

"I am not denigrating the ability of pharmacists to provide advice but this is not the way to improve sexual health education."

And Tiz North, of the BMA consultants' committee said more efforts should be going into encouraging young people to buy contraception before pregnancy.

She provoked strong criticism by saying: "This motion should have been asking for free condoms to be provided by the pharmacist, rather than free abortion pills."

Dr Gregory Gardner, a GP from Birmingham, warned widening the availability of emergency contraception would do nothing to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections, or protect teenage girls.

Levonelle 2, a progestrogen-only emergency hormonal contraceptive has been available from pharmacists for 19.99 from January.

See also:

20 Jun 01 | Health
01 Jun 01 | Vote2001
20 Feb 01 | Health
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