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PJ Online | News: Sale of EHC through pharmacies is not illegal, High Court judge rules

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The Pharmaceutical Journal
Vol 268 No 7195 p557-561
27 April 2002

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Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (
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Sale of EHC through pharmacies is not illegal, High Court judge rules

Pharmacists will continue to be able to supply Levonelle over the counter

The sale of emergency hormonal contraception through pharmacies is legal, a High Court judge ruled on 18 April.

Mr Justice Munby rejected a bid by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children to have over-the-counter sales of Levonelle (levonorgestrel) banned under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The SPUC had argued that the product was an abortifacient and was responsible for miscarriages and thus contravened the Act.

The judge said that to have accepted this argument would have potentially outlawed all forms of oral contraception and intra-uterine devices. "The prescription, supply, administration or use of the 'morning-after pill' does not — cannot — involve any offence," he ruled. "There would be something very seriously wrong with our system if a judge in 2002 were to be compelled by a statute 141 years old to hold that what thousands, hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of ordinary, honest, decent, law-abiding citizens have been doing day in, day out for so many years is and always has been criminal."

Mr Justice Munby said that the case had to revolve around modern definitions of miscarriage. He concluded that miscarriages only took place after implantation of the egg in the womb. He noted that this view had been supported by some of the leading medical works of the 1850s and 1860s.

The judge also believed that choice of contraception was covered by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, recently incorporated into United Kingdom law, which guarantees the right for all to "respect for private and family life". Admitting he had heard no argument on the point, the judge said that he still felt compelled to come to some conclusion on the issue. "I cannot see that it is any part of the responsibilities of public authorities — let alone of the criminal law — to be telling adult people whether they can or cannot use contraceptive devices of the kind which I have been considering," he said.

The judgment was welcomed by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. The Society's President (Marshall Davies) said: "This landmark judgment endorses the right of women to make their own choices about their method of contraception. It is also an important recognition of the professionalism of pharmacists, who will now continue to provide a highly valuable service to women in need of emergency contraception."

Dr Peter Longthorne, medical director of Schering Health Care, the manufacturer of Levonelle, said that emergency hormonal contraception had been the subject of unprecedented legal, medical and political scrutiny and the ruling in the High Court had "categorically confirmed that it is an appropriate and legitimate method of contraception after unprotected sex".

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