Kylie, 32, who lives in Scotland, was 19 and in a relationship with her university boyfriend when she first needed to get the emergency contraceptive pill. “We had sex on the morning of 24 December, but the condom split. I went into town to get the pill. The pharmacist was very rushed and stressed (Christmas Eve, of course), but without being taken into a side-room I was sighed loudly at and exclaimed to: ‘It’s called the morning after pill for a reason.’
“I then had to explain, in front of a queue of people, that I’d only just had sex, didn’t want to wait as then the pharmacies would close for Christmas so I was there now, in the afternoon. Not everyone has sex at 10pm at night.”
Until recently, women could get the emergency contraceptive from GUM clinics, contraception clinics, some walk-in centres or A&E departments, some GP surgeries and most high street pharmacies, like Boots. Aged 16 or over and you can also buy the pill online, where the cost varies between £25 to £35. The NHS says you need to take the pill within three days (Levonelle) or five days (ellaOne) of unprotected sex for it to be effective. And the sooner, the better.
But now a new ‘Deliveroo-style’ service from ellaOne will bring the pill to your letter box – with same-day delivery in London and within 24 hours nationwide – which women are hoping will mean they no longer have to endure the bad experiences of the past.
Mention emergency contraception to most women and the anecdotes come flying out about “the little room” – and the lectures that often happen in it. Sarah* 26, from Huddersfield, was 24 when she tried to get the pill at a high-street chemist: “I discreetly asked the pharmacist if I could purchase it. She said she wasn’t sure if they had any left and proceeded to shout to her colleague at the other end of the counter – so everybody in the vicinity could hear.
“Then when the dispensing pharmacist took me into a side-room to ask questions. He was extremely judgmental and asked if it was a ‘one night stand’ (it wasn’t, not that it was any of his business), and how old I was. When I told him 24 he proceeded to tell me I looked 17 and I should probably be more careful in future. I left feeling like I’d had a proper telling off.”
Marie, 29, from London was also frustrated at the lack of privacy when she tried to access the pill, aged 19. “I asked for one in a very small voice and asked the price. The pharmacist replied very loudly: ‘The pill is very expensive’. I was mortified, ran out of the shop and just prayed I didn’t actually need it.”
Mel, 29, who lives in Scotland, hated how public her private request became. “A horrible male pharmacist told me off in front of everyone in the pharmacy for getting it. He also told my mum about it when she was in. Luckily for me, we are a fairly open family when it comes to this sort of thing.”
Not only is indiscretion an issue for many, some women felt shamed for their sex life and choices – whether by medical staff or members of the public.
Samantha, 26, from Llanelli in South Wales, went to get the pill at a pharmacy in Swindon after a condom she was using with her boyfriend broke. “The experience was awful,” she says. “I explained to the lady behind the counter that I wanted to see a pharmacist – she shouted across the room ‘what for?’ in front of everyone and when I said, ‘I’d rather say in private’, she continued to ask me, to which my boyfriend said: ‘Why?’
“She also said: ‘Next time use contraception, yeah.’ I’d explained we did and it failed. And she made the comment: ‘you were in here for the same thing the other day weren’t you?’ – which I wasn’t! I’m 26, in a committed relationship and was made to feel like a child that had made a poor and irresponsible decision. She was really patronising and I felt really embarrassed afterwards.”
Jasmine, 25, from Milton Keynes, was 17 the first time she tried to get it from a supermarket pharmacy. She hadn’t been on other forms of contraception because she has hormonal-related health issues and was advised by her doctor against them. She said: “I was asked a lot of questions – of course, this is fine – but the tone felt very judgmental. I lied and said it was a serious relationship because I didn’t think: ‘I slept with my mate and knew he didn’t have an STI’ would cut it.”
Suzi, who is in her mid-fifties, remembers going to her GP’s surgery to get a pill when she was 24. “The female doctor told me that I should ‘get down on my knees and pray to your god that you are not pregnant’ when I went to my GP surgery to get the morning after pill, 56 hours after Friday night sex.”
Meanwhile, Becki, 29, London was shamed by a stranger while trying to get the pill. “A woman waiting for her prescription tutted at me and told me I should be ashamed and glared at me until the pharmacist was available.”
Some women have felt so shamed on previous experiences they vowed never to go back to a pharmacy. Chloe, 27, from Liverpool, decided to buy the pill online, despite being 25-years-old and married, because she was too scared to ask for it in person. “I hate that I didn’t feel like I could go and buy it in person.”
For most of the women who speak to HuffPost UK, accessing emergency contraception has been challenging– or worse still, traumatic. Angela* was 19 when she was raped at a party in her student university halls. She knew she needed to access emergency contraception because she hadn’t been taking any other contraceptives and was worried about getting pregnant.
But the incident occurred at the weekend so she had to wait a full 48 hours till a local chemist opened. She was already concerned about the delay and when she finally got to see a pharmacist, the experience was not made any better.
“I had to go into a booth where I was asked in quite specific detail what exactly happened and who the other person was,” says Angela, now 28. “I got a grilling from the pharmacist but I was very much in denial so I ended up telling the story [of what happened] as if it was all a consensual, slightly irresponsible bit of fun.”
Fortunately, some have had more mixed experiences – Hattie, 23, from Crawley, has accessed the pill three times in the past year, most recently the day before she speaks to HuffPost UK and says she had found her GP more approachable than pharmacies. “The doctors are more matter-of-fact and straight to the point and somewhat kinder, whereas the pharmacists have before looked at me in a judgemental manner and refused to sell it for reasons unknown, meaning I have been left without it before.”
And Alice*, 24, had a positive experience two years ago. “We went into the little room and the pharmacist was an older man so I was worried about being judged, but he was in fact extremely nice, calm, professional. He explained I probably didn’t even need the pill but he was happy to give it to me anyway. He didn’t even mind that I decided to go away and think about it, then come back a few hours later to take it. I felt very well looked after the entire time.”
* Some names have been changed.