British Pro-Lifers Lose Court Battle Over Morning-After Pill

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:11 PM EDT

London ( - A British pro-life group failed in its attempt to stop over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill when a judge ruled in favor of the U.K. government on Thursday.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) had argued that the emergency contraceptive pill is an abortion-inducing drug and should be regulated under the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, which prohibits the supply of any "poison or other noxious thing" with intent to cause miscarriage.

In Thursday's ruling, High Court Justice James Munby agreed with the government's position that a pregnancy begins after an embryo is implanted in the womb rather than at the time of conception. Since the morning-after pill prevents embryo implantation, the judge ruled that its sale and distribution did not cause abortion and were not against the law.

The judge acknowledged that the case raised significant legal, moral and ethical questions, but said it was up to the "good conscience" of individuals to decide whether to use the pill. Judges and governments, he said, should largely stay out of the matter.

Although causing a miscarriage is a crime in Britain under the 1861 law, abortions are allowed as long as doctors follow conditions set out in the 1967 Abortion Act.

A woman seeking an abortion must obtain consent from two doctors, and a similar restriction might have been put on the morning-after pill if the SPUC challenge was successful.

"It is a sorry day for justice when the courts fail to protect unborn life at its most vulnerable," said SPUC general secretary Paul Tully. "One of our key objectives in bringing this case has been to stop the systematic deception of women who have been told that the morning-after pill is simply a contraceptive."

The British Family Planning Association (FPA) disagreed, hailing the ruling and calling the case a "dreadful waste of public and private time and money."

"The FPA is delighted that common sense has prevailed and this ridiculous action ... has been totally defeated," said FPA chief executive Anne Weyman. "Emergency hormonal contraception has now been the subject of unprecedented legal, medical and political scrutiny. In all cases it has been found to be safe and effective."

The FPA had warned that a ruling in favor of the anti-abortion group would also cast doubt on the legality of the contraceptive pill and intrauterine devices.

Levonelle, the trade name for the emergency contraceptive pill, can be sold without a prescription to British women over age 16 as long as they answer a series of health questions. The U.K. government has also launched pilot projects to provide the pill to girls under 16 in some areas. The pill has been available from drugstores since the beginning of 2001.

The SPUC will seek leave to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeal. From there, the case could end up in front of the country's highest appeal court, a specially designated panel in the House of Lords.

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