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British to allow youth under 16 to obtain ‘morning-after pills’

LONDON (BP)–A British government decision to make the controversial “morning-after pill” available without a prescription to anyone over age 16 sends the wrong message to young women and jeopardizes their health, pro-life and religious groups said Dec. 11, according to the Internet news site CNSNews.com.

The opposition Conservative Party also criticized the decision and said it would reverse the move when next in office.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn is due to formalize the decision in parliament Dec. 11, and starting New Year’s Day women will be able to buy the drug Levonelle over the counter at any pharmacy, CNSNews.com reported.

The action follows a yearlong pilot project in the Manchester area and forms part of a broader government strategy to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, currently the highest in Western Europe.

Organizations carrying out abortions welcomed the move as a responsible one, asserting that the drug was safe and dismissing the view of many pro-lifers that its use in some instances constitutes an early abortion.

The American Medical Association announced during the week of Dec. 4 it would support over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill in the United States if its safety is proven by federal research.

The strong burst of hormones may prevent pregnancy by temporarily stopping eggs from being produced, by stopping fertilization or by stopping implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus. Many of those who believe life begins at conception argue that in this latter case it is in fact an abortion. Others would say conception is only complete once the fertilized egg is actually implanted in the uterus lining.

“The morning-after pill is safe, effective and is not a method of abortion,” said Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which carries out some 50,000 abortions a year. “Many of the women we see would have used emergency contraception had it been more accessible.”

But a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales said it was “misleading to state that a pill which prevents implantation is not abortifacient.”

The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child said the pill “can cause abortions by making the womb a hostile place for the recently-conceived embryo,” CNSNews.com reported.

SPUC General-Secretary Paul Tully also noted that the government had been unable to provide proof that providing the morning-after pill reduces the number of conventional abortions.

Although the pill has been promoted and available with a prescription for 10 years, he said, and around one million prescriptions for it were issued each year, the number of abortions had in fact risen.

Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative spokesperson on home affairs, told the BBC there were big questions as to whether the move would “encourage even more teenage sexual activity … [and] encourage people into unprotected sexual activity.”

Her colleague responsible for health matters, Dr. Liam Fox, said: “Making the morning-after pill available to all girls over 16 in this way sends the wrong message about the need for responsible sexual activity.”

The Catholic Church took a similar view. “This is not the way to do it [reduce the number of unwanted teen pregnancies],” a church spokesman said Dec. 11, CNSNews.com reported. “The starting point must be education, dealing with relationships. This is dealing with the damage, rather than why it’s happening in the first place.”

Valerie Riches of Family and Youth Concern said the signal being sent out is “one of promiscuity. Boys will feel they need to have less responsibility about taking precautions, because they know the girl can go off the next day and get the pill. There are no excuses left.

“We have to do what the Americans are starting to do … explain to young people the physical and emotional effects of having intercourse too early,” Riches said.

Riches said recent research showed that more than 80 percent of under-16s in Britain were not engaging in sex, yet youngsters had the view that “everyone’s doing it.”

“You get a whole lot of distorted statistics coming up from those who have vested interests in promoting contraception and now the morning-after pill. You mustn’t forget there’s a lot of money behind this.”

Critics also fear the health implications of making the pill more easily available.

Fox warned that the decision “can only increase the risk of worsening the epidemic of sexually transmitted disease and could result in repeated and unsupervised exposure of young girls to this powerful drug.”

Tully of SPUC said pharmacists would be unable to check patients’ medical records before selling the pill. Under-16s would also be able to obtain the drug without too much difficulty. Its provision could result in a spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

“Pharmacists are very busy. They haven’t got the time for a proper consultation,” said Riches of Family and Youth Concern. “You have to know the medical history because there are certain conditions which may preclude use of a massive dose of hormones.

“Not enough evidence has been gathered together of the illnesses that can follow,” she added, citing fears that thrombosis or kidney failure could result.

The British Medical Association welcomed the government’s decision Dec. 11 and called for the pill to be available free of charge. Furthermore, pharmacists should be able to assess whether under-16s “are competent and should receive it,” the BMA’s John Chisholm.

“It is important to reach all those at risk if you are really trying to bring down the number of teenage pregnancies,” the physician said.
Goodenough is CNSNews.com’s London Bureau chief. Used by permission.

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  • Patrick Goodenough