Ministers put back decision on sale of morning-after pill

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Hopes that the morning-after pill would be on unrestricted sale in time for the Christmas party season - to help limit the number of unwanted pregnancies in the new year - were dashed yesterday.

Hopes that the morning-after pill would be on unrestricted sale in time for the Christmas party season - to help limit the number of unwanted pregnancies in the new year - were dashed yesterday.

Health officials said it was "highly unlikely" that the emergency contraceptive, which is currently available only on prescription, would be switched to over-the-counter sale before 2001, contrary to reports in some newspapers.

The controversial pill is taken in two doses - 12 hours apart - after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.

The Medicines Commission, an advisory body to the Medicines Control Agency, recommended in July that the pill could be sold without a prescription to anyone over the age of 16.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said the recommendation had been with ministers since September but that they had not yet made a decision. It was felt that MPs should be allowed a chance to debate the issue, but there had been a lack of parliamentary time, she said.

The spokeswoman added: "We don't have any details of when the decision will be made. From a logistical point of view, it is highly unlikely [that the pill will go on sale before Christmas] because the company is going to need time to manufacture the product and produce the patient information."

Family planning campaigners have urged ministers to make the morning-after pill more easily available to help cut Britain's high teenage pregnancy rate and reduce the number of abortions.

A study of 1,000 women in Edinburgh, half of whom were given a single course of thepills to keep for use in an emergency, found that the women had 30 per cent fewer unwanted pregnancies after one year than those who had to obtain the pills by prescription.

The study, by Dr Anna Glasier and Professor David Baird of the University of Edinburgh, was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1998. Another study in Manchester found similar results.

Ann Furedi, director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said it was important that women should have ready access to emergency contraception, especially during the Christmas holiday.

"We know there is always an increase in abortions in the post-Christmas holiday period. People often find it very difficult to access doctors and family planning clinics over Christmas," Ms Furedi said.

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