Abortion services warn emergency contraception should be free after Boots criticised for price change

‘It’s almost like you don’t deserve a free service because you’ve done something wrong,’ says director of pregnancy advice charity

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Wednesday 01 December 2021 14:16
<p>The pharmacy chain had offered its cheapest emergency contraceptive for half price during its Black Friday event </p>

The pharmacy chain had offered its cheapest emergency contraceptive for half price during its Black Friday event

Abortion providers have said that emergency contraception should be free in the UK as Boots faced fierce criticism for removing its discount on the item.

Politicians and campaigners had called for the pharmacy giant not to reinstate the usual price of its emergency contraception when its “Black Friday” weekend discount expired.

But Boots ignored demands to end the “sexist surcharge”, with its cheapest emergency contraception, which is called levonorgestrel, now costing £15.99 again after temporarily being priced at £8. This is radically more expensive than the £3.39 charged by Chemist4U for the same drug.

Katherine O’Brien, associate director at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s largest abortion provider, told The Independent that emergency contraception should be free.

She noted that women can access contraception free of charge via the NHS, yet are unable to get emergency contraception, as she questioned the disparity.

Ms O’Brien said: “It is really disappointing. Boots are the biggest pharmacy in this country. They position themselves as being on the side of their customers. Take their ‘Here Come the Girls’ advert.

“This is a really straightforward thing they could do. It is the right thing to do. When women struggle to get emergency contraception, that leads to unplanned pregnancy, and that leads to more women coming to BPAS to get an abortion.

“No woman aspires to have an abortion. It is a much more difficult process than picking up an emergency contraceptive pill. Eighty-five per cent of people live within 10 minutes of a Boots. I don’t know how many people live within 10 minutes of a sexual health clinic.”

It is as if everyone over 25 wants to be pregnant, or is able to perfectly use contraception, or contraception can’t fail them. It’s almost like you don’t deserve a free service because you’ve done something wrong

Katherine O’Brien, British Pregnancy Advisory Service

She argued that there is a great deal of “stigma and shame” around emergency contraception as a result of it being incorrectly and unjustly associated with casual sex.

“It is seen as this marker of failure,” Ms O’Brien said. “It is seen as a symbol of the ‘walk of shame’ and one-night stands.”

The campaigner argued that many women in long-term relationships still routinely need emergency contraception when their usual method goes wrong. She noted that it used to be easier to access emergency contraception free of charge via special schemes, but many of these now only provide it for women under the age of 25.

“This feeds into this narrative of who it’s for,” she said. “It is as if everyone over 25 wants to be pregnant, or is able to perfectly use contraception, or contraception can’t fail them. It’s almost like you don’t deserve a free service because you’ve done something wrong.”

While emergency contraception is free if you access it via GPs and sexual health clinics, BPAS says that this is an impractical option for many women, with appointments being difficult to come by. This has been especially true in the wake of the Covid crisis and was exacerbated by cuts to public spending, which long predate the pandemic.

Ms O’Brien argued that it is particularly important for women to be able to access emergency contraception at the moment, as the public health crisis has massively disrupted contraceptive services.

The Independent has previously reported that the pandemic has profoundly disrupted access to contraception, with services forced to shut or run reduced clinics, while staff are transferred to work with Covid patients or forced to self-isolate.

Women have struggled to obtain the most effective long-acting reversible contraceptive choices (LARC) of a coil or an implant, as these require face-to-face appointments, which have been greatly reduced as consultations are carried out remotely via phone or video call.

Ms O’Brien said: “As a result more women might be relying on the contraceptive pill, and might miss a pill or are sick and need emergency contraception. Having that back-up option of emergency contraception is really important.”

She warned that domestic abuse victims, and women in low-paid or precarious zero-hour jobs, find it especially difficult to afford emergency contraception – adding that BPAS regularly hears from women who cannot afford it.

A group of Labour MPs, fronted by Diana Johnson, wrote a letter to Sebastian James, managing director of Boots UK, asking that the chain did not end its Black Friday deal on emergency contraception.

Dame Johnson said: “It is extremely disappointing that high-street giants continue to impose a sexist surcharge on emergency contraception.”

Other brands of emergency contraception for sale on the Boots website cost as much as £28.25 and £34.95.

A Boots spokesperson said the Black Friday promotion was 50 per cent off all men’s and women’s private healthcare services.

The representative added: “It is not usually possible to sustain significant discounts in the long term. Our pricing model takes into account the expert clinical advice and consultation that we give with these services, and the prices are in line with other high-street pharmacies.

“The morning after pill is available for free in many NHS settings, including in Boots pharmacies that have been commissioned by local NHS CCGs [clinical commissioning groups] to provide such a service.”

It comes after The Independent previously revealed that thousands of women have had abortions after falling pregnant while having difficulties accessing contraception during the pandemic.

Rose Stokes, the journalist who first shone a light on the Boots “Black Friday” deal, said that “women and those with wombs deserve much better” as she urged Boots to “do the right thing”.

“For far too long, Boots and other pharmacies have been profiteering from women in need by charging an over-inflated price for basic healthcare,” she said.

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