Green Light For UK Legal Challenge To 'Morning-After Pill' Decision

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - A British pro-life group was given the go-ahead Wednesday to mount a full legal challenge of a government decision to make the "morning-after pill" available from pharmacies without a prescription.

High Court Judge Scott Baker said the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child could bring a judicial review of the decision to make the drug more easily available to women over 16. Before the beginning of this year, the pill was only available with a doctor's prescription.

SPUC is now preparing its case for a full judicial hearing, confident of the outcome, said its national director, John Smeaton.

Pro-lifers argue that taking the drug Levonelle-2 constitutes an early abortion in cases where it prevents a newly conceived embryo from implanting in the womb. As such, it should be covered by abortion legislation, says SPUC, and pharmacists could be breaking the law by supplying it to customers.

"It denies distinct and unique human individuals their right to life, and we cannot stand back and let this deception continue without raising our voices to defend the truth."

Pro-abortion campaigners say UK government legal officials have ruled that "emergency contraception" is not tantamount to an abortion.

On its Internet web site, however, Levonelle-2's distributor in the UK, Schering, confirms that among other actions, its product "may also stop a fertilized egg from attaching itself to the lining of the womb."

Health risks

A spokesman for the Family Planning Association said Wednesday it wholeheartedly supported use of the morning-after pill.

The legal challenge was "an attack on women's health, and most misguided," she said.

But pro-lifers argue that women taking the pill are the ones risking health problems. Smeaton said it was unfair to make pharmacists responsible for "all the risks associated with unsupervised abortions."

Pharmacists providing the pill do not have access to medical records, SPUC points out. People with a family history of thrombosis, strokes, or high blood pressure or blood-cholesterol levels are not advised to take the pill.

Neither are those who are pregnant, although Schering says that when a woman who is already pregnant takes the pills, they "have not been shown to harm the baby."

UK family planning specialist Dr. David Delvin says that a pregnancy proceeding after a mother has taken the pill "should proceed normally, but it is best to take expert advice in every case - especially as the fetus has of course been exposed to a high dose of hormones."

Although the government's new policy is aimed at women over 16 - the age of legal consent - it has been widely reported here that under-age girls have also been able to get hold of the pill from pharmacies.

The government has presented studies asserting that the pill's use is safe. But SPUC said that the research frequently cited by the government did not look into the dangers posed by multiple use of the pill, which comprises two large doses of hormones. The research also did not explore the effects on those under16.

Reduce abortions?

Those campaigning to make the pill easier to get hold of have pointed to the high number of abortions in the UK, and say many women asking for abortions reportedly say they would have used the "morning-after pill" had it been more easily available.

"The morning-after pill is safe, effective and is not a method of abortion," says Ann Furedi of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which carries out around 50,000 abortions a year. "Many of the women we see would have used emergency contraception had it been more accessible."

Yet the rate of abortions has risen from 13.06 women in 1,000 in 1991 to 13.92 in 1,000 in 1998, SPUC says. At the same time, use of the "morning-after pill" increased dramatically, with prescriptions approaching one million a year.

Other arguments against the pill raised by conservative and religious groups include what they call social side effects to its easy availability, especially the fear that it will contribute to an even more irresponsible attitude toward sex, particularly among youngsters.

"Boys will feel they need to have less responsibility about taking precautions, because they know the girl can go off the next day and get the pill," said Valerie Riches of Family and Youth Concern. "There are no excuses left."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow