Girls may get morning after pill for free

By Martin Johnston

Girls may be given free access to the emergency contraceptive pill at their local Auckland pharmacies in a bid to reduce teen pregnancies and abortions.

The medicine can already be sold by many pharmacists without a doctor's prescription, including to girls without parental consent.

An Auckland District Health Board committee will tomorrow consider a staff proposal to make the pill free through community pharmacies in Auckland city.

People given the Levonelle 1 pill by their pharmacist would also be offered a packet of condoms and a pamphlet on sexual health and contraception.

"We are wanting to reduce the level of teen pregnancies and the impact that they have on the community and on the families themselves," a board planning and funding manager, Wendy Hoskin, said yesterday.

A similar Waikato health board scheme for women and girls under 25, set up last year to try to reduce teenage pregnancy and abortions, aims to supply the emergency pill for free to nearly 3000 people a year through pharmacies.

The number of births to teenagers nationally has been fairly stable this century, although the abortion rate among girls under 15, while slightly less than one per thousand, has increased by half since the mid-1990s.

The $300,000 Auckland scheme is a pilot that would run until the money is spent, which could take a year. Any recommendation to make the scheme permanent would depend on how many people used the service, particularly in "high-needs areas" - those of low income and/or high Maori or Pacific populations.

Conservative groups yesterday objected on grounds that parents would be left out of decision-making over their children and that emergency contraception can sometimes be abortion.

An emergency contraceptive or "morning after" pill generally costs patients around $35 at pharmacies, unless they tap into state funding. It is free at the Auckland Regional Sexual Health Service and, for young women and girls, at some GP clinics. Family Planning clinics offer free sexual-health consultations to those under 22, but there is a $3 prescription charge.

Families First spokesman Bob McCoskrie said the move to widen access to the medicine would exclude parents.

"Making it free and even more accessible is going to continue to alienate parents from the role they should be involved in."

Brendan Malone, spokesman for the Catholic Church-aligned Family Life International group, said widening access was a "deceptive" response to teen pregnancy and abortions.

"It's deceptive in that it seems like a good idea but is not addressing the root causes of the problem and creates other problems.

"Emergency contraceptive can act as an [abortion] drug. If conception has occurred the embryo is flushed from the body because the lining of the uterus is made unfriendly for implantation."

Auckland Women's Health Council co-ordinator Lynda Williams said the Auckland board scheme was a good development.

"It's one of a number of strategies that could be introduced to reduce the rate of abortion."

* TEEN BIRTHS

In 2004, 0.3 per cent of births nationally were to mothers aged under 16.

6.9 per cent were to mothers aged 16-19.

Among Maori, 0.8 per cent of births were to mothers under 16; and 16 per cent to those 16-19.

For Europeans, 0.14 per cent were under 16 and 4.4 per cent 16-19.

Among Pacific people, 0.25 per cent of births were to mothers under 16 and 7.6 per cent were 16-19.

In 2006, of 17,934 abortions, 0.6 per cent were under 15, 22.2 per cent were 15-19.

Source: Ministry of Health

- NZ Herald

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