- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

LONDON Teen-age girls will be able to obtain the morning-after emergency contraception pill free of charge as part of a publicly funded pilot program at two English supermarkets.

Karen Marshall, a Tesco spokeswoman, said Monday the local health authority in North Somerset, western England, contacted the chain about offering the pills as part of a program aimed at reducing teen-age pregnancy.

Tesco will distribute the pills at no charge to those younger than 20 at the pharmacy counters in its stores in Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon, both near Bristol in western England, Miss Marshall said.

The local branch of the National Health Service and the North Somerset Teenage Pregnancy Clinic are collaborating with Tesco on the project, which also will give teen-agers advice on contraception and sexual health.

"This is a small part of a range of initiatives we have developed to tackle teen-age pregnancy," said Simon Bilous of the clinic. "All our work is in the context of encouraging young people to say 'no' if they do not want to have sex and only to engage in sexual activity if they feel ready for it."

Parliament voted last year to permit over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill to support the government's program of reducing teen pregnancy.

The pill is available free with a prescription, but many women do not want to wait for a doctor's appointment so they pay nearly $30 to get it over the counter instead. The pill is more effective if taken immediately.

Britain's teen birthrate is twice as high as in Germany and three times higher than in France, though lower than the rates in the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

Miss Marshall said specially trained pharmacists would interview each teen-ager before dispensing the medication. Those receiving the pill free must be younger than 20, but there is no minimum age, she said.

She said local health authorities were funding the distribution and had chosen the two Tesco stores for the program because of their long hours and accessible locations.

Critics said the availability of the pill would encourage teen-agers to have sex.

"Yet again we are seeing a decline in the moral standards of an organization which ought to know better," said Rachel Heath, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion group Life. "To allow the morning-after pill to be dispensed free shows a lack of understanding of the moral health issues involved. … It gives the green light to permissive men to pressurize young girls into sexual relationships they do not want."

The morning-after pill is a high dose of birth-control pills taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy.

The government aims to reduce the teen-age pregnancy rate by 15 percent from its 1999 level by 2004.

In 2000, the latest year for which data were published, 38,690 pregnancies were reported among girls ages 15 to 17 in Britain, a rate of 43.6 per 100,000, of which 44.8 percent were terminated by legal abortions.

The rate for women ages 13 to 15 was 8.3 per 100,000, with 54.5 percent ending in abortions.

Reproductive issues are far less politically charged in Britain than in the United States. A poll released Monday by Market & Opinion Research International found that 43 percent of Britons saw abortion as an important issue in elections, compared with 71 percent of Americans who said the same before the 2000 presidential vote. The poll, commissioned by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, an abortion provider, was conducted Oct. 4-9 and included 2,000 people. The margin of error was 2 percentage points.

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