Rise in abortion after pill scare

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Health ministers are today accused of precipitating a "needless panic" over the contraceptive Pill as new government figures suggest that last year's scare lead to around 3,000 extra abortions.

A new analysis of the Pill scare also highlights its international impact and long-term effects, and concludes that the Government's advice to women to change from certain brands of the Pill was "unnecessarily alarmist and out of step with the assessment of medical information in other countries".

The analysis coincides with publication today of the abortion statistics for the first quarter of 1996, the period most likely to be affected by the events of October 1995. The figures are expected to show a significant increase in abortions of 6 to 7 per cent although some doctors are predicting it could be higher.

Dr Frank Furedi, head of development studies at Kent University, and Anne Furedi, director of the Birth Control Trust (a charity promoting reproductive health and family planning), who carried out the analysis, say that a "pill panic" was waiting to happen in the UK. This followed newspaper and television reports in 1994 and 1995 of deaths linked to one particular brand of the so-called "third generation" combined oral contraceptive Pills.

When preliminary data from three unpublished studies became available suggesting that women taking third-generation Pills - those containing the synthetic hormones gestodene or desogestrel - were twice as likely to suffer blood clots as women on older, cheaper brands, the Government took action. Around 1.5 million women taking seven of the most popular brands were advised to change.

This decision was driven largely by "the threat of media criticism and possible subsequent litigation," the report says, rather than concern for public health or any significant risk to women. It claims that Department of Health officials "overreacted and panicked" in putting out the Pill alert.

"Our research shows that this was a needless panic. Only in Britain and Germany, and later in Norway, did medical authorities conclude that women using third-generation combined pills should be advised to change to other brands," Ms Furedi said yesterday.

The Furedi report says that unlike other transitory health scares, the 1995 Pill scare will reinforce the public's view that oral contraception poses risks that outweigh its considerable advantages. In addition, the scare has meant that doctors are reluctant to prescribe combined oral contraception Pills, and "has reinforced a climate where legal action is more likely to be launched" by patients.

The International Impact of a Pill Panic in the UK is available from the Birth Control Trust, 16 Mortimer Street, London W1N 7RD.