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You can now buy the morning after pill for £3
Photography Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, via Unsplash

We’re all being ripped off for the morning after pill

An online pharmacy is now selling emergency contraception for £3 – women tell us about the financial and emotional strain accessing the pill elsewhere has had on them

Following the legalisation of abortion in Ireland and Northern Ireland, you would be forgiven for thinking that the state was loosening its grip on women’s bodies. But as anyone who’s ever had to buy the morning after pill knows: there’s a long way to go.

Not only do pharmacies subject women to intrusive consultations before allowing them to buy emergency contraception, but they charge up to £26 for the luxury. Now, as an online pharmacist has started selling it for just £3, high streets have been widely accused of overcharging.

“The sale of the morning after pill for £3 illustrates just how cheap this medication is,” Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), told The Telegraph, “but women are still having to pay vastly over the odds for this pill at their time of need.”

She continued: “We believe emergency contraception belongs on the shelf of the pharmacy, not hidden away at the back, accessible only after a consultation. There is simply no reason why we should restrict access in the way we do when the stakes for women are so high – women know when they need it and should be trusted to use it.”

Online pharmacy Dr Fox is now selling three variations of the morning after pill – Levonorgestrel, Levonelle, and ellaOne – with prices significantly lower when compared to high street retailers Lloyds, Superdrug, and Boots. Emergency contraception can be bought from the site in advance of needing it – after the buyer completes a short, confidential online assessment – enabling women to have immediate access at home when required.

As the morning after pill is safe to take and can be used as often as needed, the BPAS is calling for it to be reclassified as a General Sales List medication – AKA so you could buy it at a reasonable price, directly from the shelf, and without a consultation. Although emergency contraception is free on the NHS following a visit to your GP, it must be taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sex, making this an unviable option for many.

Ordering online or buying from the shelf eradicates the need to detail private information to a pharmacist, something that is triggering for many women. “Morning after pill conversations are invasive and intrusive,” Lola* says. “I’m already anxious that I may be pregnant; I don’t need to exacerbate this further by speaking to a stranger with smirking eyes.” Lola asserts that easier access “would ease the emotional stress of acquiring emergency contraception”, but says it doesn’t negate the need for more sensitively-trained staff members.

“I’m already anxious that I may be pregnant; I don’t need to exacerbate this further by speaking to a stranger with smirking eyes” – Lola*

The high price tag and condescending restrictions also lack sensitivity when it comes to women who need to access contraception after suffering abuse. Michelle* told Dazed that she needed to buy the morning after pill after she was assaulted at a music festival. “I was in sixth form,” she recalled, “and had a weekend job in retail. I’d saved up for months to go to this big festival – I’d always been careful with budgeting – so the monetary anxiety (around buying the pill) was overwhelming. It cost me more than £30 – a significant amount for me at the time – and it added to the shame, guilt, and anxiety I felt about the whole situation.”

As well as struggling with the cost of emergency contraception, Caoimhe* had the added pressure of Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws. “I was 19 and desperately trying to graft the money together to afford the morning after pill,” she explains. “Luckily I got my university’s hardship fund grant through just in time to get the pill two days later, but I made myself physically sick with worry after taking it, leading me to worry even more that it hadn’t worked. I was studying and living in Northern Ireland at the time, where abortion was illegal, and I would have had to travel to access it in the UK – the stress was really horrendous, compounded by financial and annoyingly political reasonings.”

“At BPAS, we see women experiencing unplanned pregnancies who tell us that they simply could not afford to buy emergency contraception,” the organisation’s head of media told Dazed in 2017, “so we know the impact that this extortionate price tag has on women’s lives and their health.”

“It cost me more than £30 – a significant amount for me at the time – and it added to the shame, guilt, and anxiety I felt about (being sexually assaulted)” – Michelle*

Boots previously defended their pricing, with their chief pharmacist saying: “We would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.” As there’s no dangers to taking emergency contraception regularly, this suggestion enforces society’s moralistic attitude to fertility – something that women should have individual control over.

Other methods of contraception not only lack 100 per cent effectiveness, but can also have detrimental side effects when it comes to mental health. GP waiting hours also impact the speed at which women can get their contraception replaced – a 2018 BBC investigation found that 72 per cent of UK councils planned to cut sexual health funding in 2018/19 compared with 2017/18. This has made it even harder for women to get an appointment to access contraception, leaving many forced to rely on the morning after pill to avoid unwanted pregnancies. 

“£26 doesn’t seem like a lot,” Lola concluded, “but that’s my whole week’s groceries. There’s a burden on women to cover themselves with the morning after pill, which is incredibly unfair.”

* Names have been changed