The problem of the £4.99 morning after pill

India Sturgis
Chemist 4 U has revealed they will be selling emergency contraception for £4.99 online  - © dpa picture alliance archive / Alamy

For those who get caught in the moment, like to err on the side of caution or whose partners are unreliable, there was good news this week.

The UK website, Chemist 4 U, announced they will be selling £4.99 packs of the morning after pill (MAP) online – a significant drop from the £14 it typically costs in shops – and advised women to stock up in advance, or to use their local chemist in emergencies.

In other words, the cost of emergency contraception has dropped to almost half the price of a cinema ticket and closed in on those sold in France, where similar tablets cost £5.50. 

Previously only sold individually and after a face-to-face consultation with a pharmacist, shoppers can now accrue an advance supply of Levonelle, a generic version of the pill, at the swipe of a mouse. The company will only deliver three packs within six months and buyers must fill out an online medical questionnaire, reviewed by a medic, before they’ll be sent. 

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service see women facing unplanned pregnancies because they couldn’t afford emergency contraception Credit: Alamy

For many, the news is welcome, and follows on from other versions of the pill becoming available over the counter at much-reduced prices. You can buy it at Tesco for £13.50, Boots for £15.99 and Superdrug for £13.49;  prices that have recently dropped from close to the £30 mark.

BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service) report seeing many women facing unplanned pregnancies because they couldn’t afford emergency contraception, or have had to endure the ignominy of having to go without meals or borrow money from family to afford it.

So, of course, cheaper means more easily accessible, which is good. Not least for victims of sexual assault, abuse, or those who, for whatever reason, feel unable to visit a doctor or sexual health clinic where the pill can be given out for free. 

Similar tablets are available over the counter from Tesco (£13.50), Boots (£15.99) and Superdrug (£13.49) Credit: Nick Ansell 

But there is a big problem in all of this. Could dropping the price to such lows and encouraging a stash to be kept at home encourage some to think less and take more?

Doctors advise using the MAP (effective in preventing about 84 per cent of pregnancies) only in emergencies. 

A £4.99 price tag sends out a different message, especially to young women and girls who could rely on it rather than their partner to use safe forms of contraception. Chemist 4 U's MAP costs £2 more than pack of condoms. 

It’s a grim reality that for some women, in the heat of the moment and under pressure to perform, asking a new partner to put on a condom can be an embarrassment that is preferable to avoid. 

It’s no great leap to assume an accessible alternative, kept under the sink, could make people take greater risks, putting themselves on the STI frontline. Incentivising men to use condoms properly would solve much of this. 

Chemist 4 U's MAP costs two pounds more than a pack of condoms Credit: PA/Niall Carson

Among others, Josephine Quintavelle, from Comment on Reproductive Ethics, has questioned selling MAP for “pocket money prices”.

“These are really serious drugs,” she said. “It worries me that even regardless of the moral issues, selling at these prices and without proper consultation is misleading women into thinking this is routine contraception, and something that can be treated casually.”

The side effects of emergency contraception can be unwelcome and include vomiting, dizziness, headaches, bleeding or abdominal cramps. It can mess up your cycle. There are also studies to suggest it is less effective if you’re overweight and other medications (some barbiturates, St. John’s wort etc) can decrease its dependability.  

Giving women, especially young girls, the green light to stockpile a serious medication that delays or inhibits ovulation is not a decision that should be taken lightly. 

Of course women's decisions about their bodies must be their own but these aren't sweets, even if their price point is getting close to it, and we shouldn't be popping them as if they were. 

Asking your GP about contraception