Pill safety scare `led to panic and 800 extra abortions'

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More than 800 extra abortions were carried out by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service in the wake of last year's scare over the safety of some contraceptive pills, new figures show today.

The increase appears to confirm fears expressed at the time that hundreds of unwanted pregnancies would follow the panic surrounding October's announcement on the risk of blood clots. The BPAS says pregnancies might have been avoided if more comprehensive information had been available. It criticises the handling of the affair.

The 9.5 per cent increase in the number of terminations between December last year and February was recorded at 28 of the BPAS charity's clinics.

It reinforces findings from a Press Association news agency survey of doctors last week and an investigation by BBC's Watchdog HealthCheck programme to be broadcast tonight. Eight out of 10 authorities questioned by Watchdog reported a rise. The lowest was 5 per cent in Milton Keynes, but Bristol saw a 100 per cent increase. One showed a 2 per cent decrease and another no change.

Many doctors were caught off guard when the Committee on the Safety of Medicines made the shock announcement that 1.5 million women on some of the most popular modern pills were twice as likely to suffer from deep vein thrombosis. Surgeries were besieged with call but had not, in many cases, been informed of the announcement themselves. The lack of information compounded the panic. The seven brands involved were Femodene, Femodene ED, Minulet, Triadene, Tri-minulet, Marvelon and Mercilon. Women were urged to keep taking them until the end of their cycle and then talk to their doctor, but many ignored the advice.

The BPAS, which carries out 18 per cent of abortions in England and Wales, said 41 per cent of women stopped taking the Pill immediately and 61 per cent did not finish their course as a result of the scare, one of the worst in the contraceptive's 30-year history. In its report published today, it said: "There seems to have been a lost opportunity in this announcement - women made immediate decisions and as a result there is an increase in unplanned pregnancies. With more comprehensive information and a more educated means of communication, women are better prepared to make an informed decision.

"Perhaps this would have ensured that women were more able to determine the overall risk factors against benefits and take less immediate and drastic action such as stopping any means of contraception or changing to a contraceptive that has a greater risk of pregnancy than the Pill."