Culture

This Jerk Pharmacy Chain Is Overpricing The Morning-After Pill To Discourage “Over-Use”

We asked a doctor if it could happen in Australia...

Today in Paternalistic Women’s Health News (my favourite subject!), reports have emerged that popular UK pharmacy chain Boots is refusing to lower the price of the morning-after pill for fear that lower prices will encourage “inappropriate” use among women.

After a campaign by The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) encouraging UK pharmacies to reduce the price of the pill to make it more accessible, pharmacies Superdrug and Tesco agreed to lower their prices.

BPAS had written to all major pharmacies calling for the price decrease after it was revealed British customers pay up to five times more for the pill than in most other European companies, according to The Independent.

However, Boots has flatly refused to decrease its prices for bunch of reasons including one extremely Handmaid’s Tale-esque response: “In our experience the subject of EHC [emergency hormonal contraception] polarises public opinion and we receive frequent contact from individuals who voice their disapproval of the fact that the company chooses to provide this service,” the Chief Pharmacist of Boots UK Marc Donovan explained in a letter to BPAS. “We would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.”

LOL, what? Even after Tesco and Superdrug significantly reduced the price of the drug (in both its branded and generic forms), and BPAS wrote back to the chain, Donovan replied explaining that Boots would still not be reducing the price of the drug, which seems absurd.

The only reason *I* can think of why a major competitive retail chain would not competitively price its products is… let’s say “ideological”. Or, as BPAS put it, “insulting and sexist”.

The morning-after pill, also called the emergency contraceptive pill, is a highly controversial and woefully misunderstood drug — not just in the UK, but here in Australia as well. The pill is essentially a very high dose of the hormone progesterone, which, if administered up to 72 hours (or, for some pills, up to 120 hours) after unprotected sex, can prevent pregnancy occurring. The sooner it’s taken after sex, the more effective it will be.

Junkee quizzed Sydney GP Dr Brad McKay about the pill and the perceptions around it in Australia.

“The morning-after pill has been given a bad rap in the past because religious fanatics think it’s ‘killing babies’. However, the morning-after pill usually works by decreasing the sperm’s ability to reach the egg and prevents fertilisation.”

Essentially — emergency contraception is just another (single-use) method to prevent pregnancy. It is not a method for terminating a pregnancy (not that choosing to terminate a pregnancy is something to be frowned upon, just FYI). This is where a lot of ideological arguments against emergency contraceptives are just illogical. Sure, the morning after pill is not recommended by doctors as a long-term contraceptive method. And, as Dr McKay explains, it “isn’t a guarantee of not getting pregnant, but it is helpful in an emergency situation”.

We asked Dr McKay about the ethics around pricing the morning-after pill in Australia (where it can cost anywhere between $15-40 depending on the brand and place of purchase), and he explained, “After an unexpected, passionate tumble in the hay, couples are often frightened of getting pregnant as they enter a pharmacy for emergency contraception. This puts them in a vulnerable situation where they are willing to pay anything to not get pregnant.”

Dr McKay went on, “It’s unethical for companies to charge exorbitant fees and prey on young women’s wallets during a time of need. Setting a high price point to ‘discourage use’ of an overwhelmingly safe medication is an unscientific, unproven, and sexist strategy.”

Contraception, and women’s health in general, continues to be an absurd sticking point, not just in Australia and the UK, but all over the world. In countries where the majority of policymakers are men — and where many parliamentary processes are held to ransom by conservative factions of government — safe and affordable access to women’s health, including contraception, remains a major battle.

This is just flat-out bonkers, and an infringement of our fundamental human right to the highest attainable standard of health.

As Dr McKay put it, “Contraception should be safe, effective, available, and affordable. Inappropriately charging women high prices for a cheap medication when they are in urgent need and emotionally distressed, is abhorrent.”

Matilda Dixon-Smith is Junkee’s Staff Writer. She tweets at @mdixonsmith.