Leading article: The pill enters the internet age

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The Independent Online

N ow what do you think was the response of the medical establishment to news that the contraceptive pill can be bought over the internet? You surely guessed it in one. The doctors – as represented by their spokesperson at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists – do not like it at all.

The medics' misgivings, of course, have nothing to do with morality: they are content to believe that what people do in their own time, with or without consent, is no concern of theirs. Their objections – they say – derive entirely from medical considerations. The most commonly prescribed pill entails a very small risk of thrombosis, as is made clear on every packet. Women ordering the pill over the internet will pass up the blood pressure check that is otherwise routine.

Internet ordering is still not hassle-free. Women have to register and answer a detailed questionnaire, and they have to state that they are over 18. So long as the registering name and the name on the credit card tally, however, there is no further bar to misrepresentation. It would not be impossible for someone younger to buy the pill over the internet.

While not wishing to condone law-breaking, we cannot believe that sales of the pill over the internet are as much of a problem as doctors are making out. On the contrary, easier access to both the contraceptive pill and the morning-after pill is overdue; provision of both has for too long been a closed shop for GPs.

The Government said months ago that it was reviewing a plan to make the pill available over-the-counter at pharmacies. Since when it has remained just that: a plan. And even if, in ministers' own sweet time, the pill were available without prescription, women would still have to answer the same questions face-to-face that they can now answer over the internet, in private.

It is the requirement to visit a doctor or pharmacy in person that so many people, especially younger girls, find off-putting about the present arrangements. With most GP surgeries operating only office hours, convenience also enters the equation. Given that our teenage pregnancy rate is among the highest in Europe and abortions are running at record levels, anything that broadens access to safe contraception is to be encouraged; that includes ordering it over the internet.

Compare and contrast the situation with Viagra. How many moons is it since unsolicited adverts started to feature in almost every email inbox? And how many Royal College health warnings have been issued in response? If it were men, rather than women, who benefited from the pill, it might have been available over the internet long ago.