WOMEN in Scotland are to get easier access to the morning-after pill at pharmacies in moves announced by the Scottish Government yesterday.
The emergency contraception is set to be supplied for free in most of Scotland's 1,200 community pharmacies under changes to their contracts.
Last night, the plan was welcomed by sexual health groups and doctors. However, some campaigners expressed fears it could fuel rising rates of sexually transmitted infections.
Shona Robison, the public health minister, announced an expansion of services provided by community pharmacists at a conference in Glasgow.
As well as free emergency contraception, changes to the contract will lead to pharmacies providing smoking cessation services and free chlamydia testing and treatment. Some pharmacies already offer such services, but provision across Scotland is patchy.
Ms Robison said she hoped by making the services part of the national contract, people across Scotland would get more equal access while certain standards would have to be met.
Women can currently get the morning-after pill free on prescription from their GP or a family planning clinic. But if they are unable to do this, they can buy it over the counter from a pharmacy for around 26.
Pharmacists will be able to opt out of providing the free emergency contraception service as a matter of conscience.
It has not yet been decided if there will be an age limit on who can receive the pill.
Dr Stuart Scott, from the British Medical Association, said the new contracts would help women who could not afford emergency contraception in cases where they were unable to see a GP. He added: "Anything that will help reduce unwanted pregnancies is welcome."
A Family Planning Association spokesman said: "This is welcome news for women and we would like to see more of this type of provision."
But Dr Trevor Stammers, from the charity Family and Youth Concern, said research suggested the morning-after pill did not reduce abortions.
He added: "I am staggered government will be wasting taxpayers' money on something not backed by a scrap of evidence.
"This will make money for the manufacturers but in terms of improving public health it will have no effect."
And last night, a spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland
said: "This gives the false impression that careless sexual activity is OK because there is always a fix.
"That message is likely to lead to more, not less, sexually transmitted disease and higher recourse to abortion."
Ms Robison rejected concerns that the move would lead to an increase in sexual disease, adding: "It is important people can get an easily accessible service but the message, particularly to young people, will remain the same – to wait until you are ready for sex and be safe."