Easier sale 'threatens free Pill': Fear over prescription-free purchase

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of women could lose their supply of free contraceptives if the Pill was available without prescription from pharmacies, according to family planning organisations.

There is growing international support for making the oral contraceptive pill available over-the-counter in Europe and North America, as it is in many developing countries. Doctors and women's rights groups say the drug is safer than many others sold in pharmacies, and that women should be freed from the 'medicalisation' of their fertility. They say easier access to the Pill will cut the number of unplanned pregnancies.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation met in London this week to discuss the issue, and it tops the agenda at a meeting next week of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In the US, traditionally much more conservative about birth control than Britain, the Food and Drug Administration is believed to back a move to over-the-counter sales.

Those in favour see it as an extension of existing services, with the Pill continuing to be available on prescription free or subsidised, in those countries where it is the current practice. However, the Family Planning Association and other organisations fear the Government is seeking a way to cut the pounds 3.2bn NHS drugs bill, which is growing at 14 per cent a year.

Contraception is one of several categories of medicines under review with the aim of taking some contraceptives off prescription. One possibility is that some brands of the Pill will be made available over-the-counter only, to women who can afford them.

This would be beginning of the end of the principle of free contraception, according to Karin Pappenheim, of the Family Planning Association. 'We are in favour of anything which makes it easier to get the Pill but the issue of the OTC Pill here is being discussed in the context of savings, not access,' she said. 'We benefit from a free contraceptive service which most countries do not and that must be preserved.'

Alison Hadley, of the Brook Advisory Centre, said that the timing of the debate was 'curious', and was not industry or consumer-led. 'The issue is coming up very fast and it is difficult to know why. On the one hand it is a very positive argument, the Pill doesn't need to be medicalised, but there is a worry that it is financially driven. If you had to go to the chemist and pay for Pills it would be a disaster.'

Ann Furedi, of the Birth Control Trust, said she was alarmed by any change in the organisation of contraceptive services led by considerations of cost rather than of access to services.