Boots birth control controversy reveals Britain’s barriers to women’s reproductive freedom
by Kirstie Summers, FiLiA volunteer
In 2016, it was revealed that women in Britain have to pay up to five times more for the morning after pill than women in Europe.
The European Consortium for Emergency Contraception, a group working to expand knowledge about and access to emergency contraception, released research comparing availability across the continent. It found that emergency contraception could be bought in France for as little as 7€, while in Britain it can cost as much as 42€, or £31.60. The prices in Britain and Ireland are the highest in all of Europe.
Following this revelation, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) petitioned high street pharmacies to lower the prices of their emergency contraception. High prices can be a severe barrier to contraception for some women, especially given the difficulty of accessing medication quickly enough on the NHS.
Chief executive of BPAS Ann Furedi described the discrepancy between countries as “insulting”. She said:
“Condoms are on the shelf. Sex toys are on the shelf. All manner of medications are on the shelf. So why not emergency contraception?
“As a society we embrace sex for pleasure, but expect women to march a walk of shame, and pay through the nose ... when things go awry, as they occasionally do.”
Both Superdrug and Tesco agreed to reduce costs, but the campaign was met with resistance by Boots.
The response from the retailer argued that emergency contraception is available for free on the NHS and community pharmacies for those who are eligible. The letter went on to say:
“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. We would not want to be accused of incentivising inappropriate use, and provoking complaints, by significantly reducing the price of this product.”
In covering the story for The Independent, Laura Bates comments that this not only seems to be Boots’s way of justifying “policing female sexual behaviour and reproductive choices”, but that the decision to do so was made “to pander to sexist public opinion”.
“Like the sexist surcharge that sees women pay above the odds for everything from razors to shower gel, this is just one more way in which gender inequality hits women in the wallet.
“The letter also seems to imply that Boots agrees that women would use emergency contraception ‘inappropriately’ if it was available at a lower price. This not only suggests a very low opinion of women in general, but also implies that Boots considers itself to be in a position to police women's morality and behaviour.”
While there was some conservative support for the Boots position, Sandra Gidley of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society described it as “uncomfortable”.
She explained how Boots’s logic is inherently flawed:
“Pharmacists have to ask a set number of questions, so if women are regularly trying to use the morning after pill as a method of contraception they're simply not allowed to have it.”
Boots has since released an apology for its “poor choice of words” and says it is looking into stocking cheaper versions of the drug.
The branded pill Levonelle is priced at £28.25 in Boots, with a non-branded alternative costing £26.75.
In Tesco, the branded drug is only £13.50. The Superdrug non-branded equivalent is available for £13.49.
Clare Murphy, Director of External Affairs at BPAS, said that the organisation would continue to keep up pressure on the retailer.
People are reaching out to Boots on Twitter @BootsUK to ask them to lower the price and BPAS has provided a template email for anyone who wants to contact Boots Customer Support and Ian Blythe, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, directly on the website for the Just Say Non! campaign: http://www.justsaynon.org.uk/
To mark 50 years of the Abortion Act, the FiLiA conference will be hosting a session on Women's Reproductive Rights. BPAS will be speaking.