Punishing UK Women When Condoms Fail

(HRW) – British-based pharmacy mega-chain Boots is refusing to follow in the footsteps of its competitors and lower prices for the morning-after pill, citing fear of a moralistic public backlash. Now they are facing a firestorm of controversy.

In a letter responding to calls from British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) to lower prices on emergency contraception, Boots’ Chief Pharmacist Marc Donovan said, “We do not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, or provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.”

In other words, Donovan allegedly fears reducing the cost will encourage women to use it in place of contraception.

But contraception is not 100% effective, nor are women always in a position to negotiate use of contraception – and they shouldn’t be punished for that. Make no mistake – the morning-after-pill is a drug needed and taken exclusively by women, so Boots is taking it upon itself to judge only women for their sex lives.

Boots’ claims that affordability is linked to “inappropriate use” are not based on evidence, and reek of sexism and fear. Companies in the business of providing health care should not be making biased, subjective and, unscientific judgements of women about the “appropriate” use of contraception and then keep prices high to enforce those discriminatory views. Women have a right to privacy and to make choices about their reproductive health. Women in the UK have been shelling out up to five times more for emergency contraception than women in parts of mainland Europe.

Tesco and Superdrug, key Boots competitors, have slashed prices in the UK by more than half following BPAS’ campaign.

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Fear and moralizing should not drive decisions about sales of medications. The World Health Organization deems the pills safe and says they should be available as part of necessary reproductive health care. These particular drugs are most effective soon after sex, so time is of the essence. Same-day NHS doctor appointments in England can be hard to come by, and walk-in clinics often demand hours-long waits.

Boots’ official response to the controversy raised by its letter says they are “extremely disappointed by the focus BPAS have taken,” but does not address concerns about the reasoning behind its decision not to reduce prices. Human Rights Watch contacted Boots several times for comment but as yet has not received a response.

“No one uses emergency contraception because it’s cheap. It should be cheap because people need to use it,” one person posted on Twitter in response to the revelations about Boots’ rationale. The only thing Boots should be “extremely disappointed” in, is its defense of an anti-rights, sexist pricing policy.

This report prepared by Hillary Margolis for Human Rights Watch.