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Claims on 'morning-after' pill countered
In study, new law didn't alter use
By Carey Goldberg, Globe Staff | July 8, 2005
With Massachusetts lawmakers close to enacting a law allowing over-the-counter distribution of the ''morning-after" pill, a new British study indicates that use of emergency contraception changed little after a similar measure went into effect in the United Kingdom.
The study, released today by BMJ, the British medical journal, indicated that after the United Kingdom switched from prescription-only to over-the-counter availability in 2001, women became no more likely to have unprotected sex. So, contrary to what opponents of the pills say, the new access did not appear to encourage promiscuity.
It also indicated that the number of women who used emergency contraception stayed about the same. So, contrary to what advocates of the pills say, the new ease of access did not seem to expand the pool of women who used them to block pregnancy.
The British study, based on annual surveys of more than 7,000 women, is the first to examine the effect of over-the-counter emergency contraception by following a large population, its lead author says. It comes on the heels of the Massachusetts House of Representatives' veto-proof vote in favor of a bill that would require hospitals to supply emergency contraception to rape victims, and allow specially trained pharmacists to dispense it without a prescription. The measure, now all but sure to become law because the Senate unanimously approved a similar bill, has provoked opposition from antiabortion groups.
Extrapolating from the British study, Cicely Marston, its lead researcher, said that if Massachusetts switches to over-the-counter access, ''it seems unlikely there would be an upsurge in use" in the morning-after pill ''simply because of its being available over the counter."
Her study, she acknowledged, could not track the most-touted benefit of over-the-counter access, ''which is that there may be an advantage in terms of time: Women may be able to access the method more quickly, which would make it more effective."
That is no small advantage, said Angus McQuilken, public affairs director of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which supports the legislation. ''Providing access without a prescription will allow rape victims and other women to get emergency contraception when it will be most effective, in the first 12 to 24 hours," he said.
Opponents of the bill raised a different problem with the British study: It looked at women between ages 16 and 49, because in Britain, girls under 16 are not eligible to obtain emergency contraception without a prescription. The current Massachusetts bill carries no similar age restriction, said Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, which opposes it.
Marston, a lecturer at the Imperial College Faculty of Medicine in London, said she was surprised by the study's finding that easier access did not increase demand for emergency contraception.
Previous smaller studies had indicated that usage would rise. And in March, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a paper showing that after British Columbia switched to over-the-counter access in late 2000, usage rose from an average of 8,800 prescriptions a year before the switch to nearly 18,000 purchases in 2002.
Carey Goldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.