Australia's Dalliance With the Morning-After Pill

Interview With Physician-Bioethicist Brigid Vout

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SYDNEY, Australia, JUNE 4, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Australia's move to allow sales of the morning-after pill over the counter is a prescription for trouble, says a medical expert.



Dr. Brigid Vout, executive officer of the Sydney Archdiocese's Life Office, shared with ZENIT some of the problems related to the morning-after pill.

Vout, a qualified medical practitioner, is working on a master's in bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne.

Q: Since the beginning of this year the morning-after pill is available over the counter in pharmacies. What are the main objections raised by the Church to this change?

Vout: The morning-after-pill can work as a contraceptive -- preventing ovulation or fertilization -- or by causing the "chemical" abortion of a newly conceived human embryo. The abortifacient action of this drug is not widely known about or understood.

Making the drug available over the pharmacy counter will only make this situation worse! It is extremely difficult for pharmacists working in a public and often busy workplace to adequately -- and confidentially -- counsel women about how this drug works.

It is equally difficult for them to provide important information about its other side effects and health risks for women. This means that many more early human lives may be lost and that the physical and psychological well-being of women may be placed at risk.

At the same time, easy access to the morning-after pill does nothing to encourage men and women to live chaste lives. People should be encouraged and enabled to take responsibility for their sexual activity and not to engage in activities which might lead them to seek over-the-counter medication which may act to cause an abortion.

Q: What is the abortive nature of these pills?

Vout: The prescribing information for the form of the morning-after-pill which is available from Australian pharmacies, clearly states that this drug can cause changes to the lining of the womb that discourage implantation. This results in the death of a newly conceived human embryo -- a "chemical abortion."

Q: Recent press reports reveal that young girls are buying the pill. Moreover, on occasions there is little or no counseling by the pharmacists to those who buy the pills. Is there a contradiction between a society increasingly concerned over abuses committed against young people with the idea of absolute freedom in all matters regarding sex?

Vout: Human sexuality should always be at the service of life and love. Neither sexual abuse nor irresponsible consensual sexual activity which leads to the use of a drug which can cause abortion, can be said to be at the service of life and love.

Unfortunately, too, we have to consider the possibility that some of the young girls who will buy the morning-after pill from pharmacists may in fact be victims of sexual abuse. But this arrangement does not encourage women in this situation to seek the help they deserve and need.

At least in a doctor's surgery [office] there is more opportunity to explore the possibility of coercion into unwanted sexual experiences. There is a greater opportunity for a confidential and personalized medical consultation, screening and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, and referral for other professional or legal help.

Of course, many pharmacists will try to meet these women's needs as best they can. However, it is impractical to expect them to do so in their working environment.

Q: Could the morning-after pill lead to health problems if taken frequently?

Vout: There simply has not been sufficient study into the immediate and long-term effects of frequent usage of the morning-after pill. This alone is an important reason why the drug should not be so freely available.

If women had to consult a doctor to request this medication, there would at least be a greater opportunity for them to be advised, even if only medically, against reliance upon this drug.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration rejected plans to introduce the over-the-counter sale of the morning-after pill because of insufficient evidence that teen-agers could safely use the pills without a doctor's guidance.

The Australian Medical Association has also released a statement saying that the making the morning-after pill available over the counter trivializes women's health. They are obviously concerned about the safety of this drug for women.

Q: What safeguards are needed for pharmacists, doctors and nurses who do not wish to be involved in the distribution of the morning-after pill?

Vout: The Australian Catholic bishops' Committee for Doctrine and Morals has recently released a statement reminding Australian pharmacists that their right to refuse to participate in an activity which might bring about a very early abortion is rightly respected in both law and professional practice. This would also apply to members of other healing professions such as doctors and nurses.

It is still very important, however, that we all support health professionals who choose not to supply the morning-after pill. For many of them, this decision requires great courage and sacrifice.

They need our prayer and encouragement, as well as our thanks for their willingness to witness to the moral value of embryonic life, the dignity of human sexuality, and their authentic concern for women's health.