Emergency contraception (EC) should be available on supermarket shelves at a more affordable price, a leading reproductive rights charity has urged.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has also called for an end to the mandatory consultation women must undergo before receiving EC, calling the current system “sexist”.
The charity said such obstacles are putting women off of accessing EC, leading to unwanted pregnancies.
It pointed out that women in the UK can pay up to £30 for the most basic form of EC, up to five times more than in other European countries.
However, a Department of Health spokesperson told The Huffington Post UK it has “no plans to change the system”.
It is now 15 years since the progestogen-only emergency contraceptive Levonelle One Step (now also sold as Boots Emergency Contraceptive and Consilient) was first made available to women to buy from behind the counter in pharmacies after a consultation with a pharmacist.
According to BPAS, the price was deliberately inflated and a mandatory consultation introduced to prevent women from using it as a regular method of contraception.
Since its introduction, the use of EC in the UK has barely changed and remains low. Research has found that around one third of British women have had unprotected sex in the last 12 months, and the majority (67%) did not use EC.
BPAS claims to regularly sees women experiencing unplanned pregnancy who were deterred from seeking EC because of the obstacles to access, including the price.
While emergency contraception is available for free from GPs and sexual health clinics, BPAS said for many women, this is not a practical option. Appointments can be hard to obtain and services increasingly restricted amid cuts to public spending.
As a result, the charity is calling for EC to be reclassified as a General Sales List medication so it can be placed on pharmacy and shop shelves for women to buy without consultation.
BPAS’ campaign, titled #justsaynon, claims it may be cheaper for some women to fly to France to buy EC than purchase it on their local high street.
British women pay up to £30 for Levonelle, which is more than anywhere else in Europe with the exception of Ireland. In France, the equivalent product costs around €7 (£6).
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the BPAS, said: “It is utterly stupid that we have made a medication which gives women a second chance of avoiding an unwanted pregnancy so hard to obtain.
“There is no financial justification for the high price of this pill, nor clinical reason for a consultation before it can be sold.”
She added that emergency contraception should be considered no different from any other form of medication.
“People are trusted to use a wide variety of medications sold on the shelves of pharmacies in a sensible and appropriate way,” she said.
“It’s time to ditch what is the ultimate sexist surcharge and put emergency contraception where it belongs - on the shelf, at a price women can afford.”
According to BPAS, while a number of factors influence the high price, the fact that women must undergo a consultation before being “allowed” EC - even though there are no circumstances where it would be unsafe - is one reason why the price is so high.
Some pharmacies take part in local programmes to provide EC free of charge, but they often serve only young women, the service is only available from certain pharmacies, and only when the pharmacist is on site.
There is no clinical reason for a woman to consult with a healthcare professional before she obtains EC, unless she wishes to.
BPAS is calling on the Department of Health to launch an urgent review of retail access to EC in order to ensure women have affordable, straightforward access.
In a statement given to The Huffington Post UK, a Department of Health spokesperson said: “Emergency contraception is available free of charge from general practice, sexual health clinics and from some community pharmacies.
“We are clear it is only for use in emergencies and we have no plans to change the system.”