• Health secretary's claims challenged • Scheme will 'encourage promiscuity'
By Richard Shaw
THE ARCHBISHOP of Westminster has condemned the Government's decision to permit the sale on demand of the "morning-after" pill.
Archbishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor said the move was futile and would not reduce the number of teenage pregnancies.
"To make the morningafter pill available to teenagers over the counter encourages sexual promiscuity, and increasingly isolates young people in difficulty from the help and advice they need, the archbishop said.
It is futile to address the problem of teenage pregnancies, which are so numerous in this country. without reference to clear moral principles. To continue the pretence that each person can decide for themselves what is right and wrong just compounds the problem."
He added: "Merely providing ever easier access to early forms of • abortion will not work. It is crucial for the moral health of our society that we rediscover the true place of sex in human relationships."
Cardinal Thomas Winning of Glasgow said the move marked another stage in the loss of respect for human life. He challenged the Government's claim that the drug, which is taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, was a contraceptive. "These pills are not contraceptives. Morning-after pills are abortifacients," he said.
The cardinal's view was confirmed by the medical journal The Lancet, which said that the pill, known as Levonelle, contained an active ingredient which prevented the implantation of a fertilised egg and was, therefore, an abortifacient.
Levonelle, which is currently available only on prescription. will be given over the counter to women over the age of 16 from New Year's Day. The health secretary, Alan Milburn, who introduced the measure on Monday, said it would cut the rate of teenage pregnancies in Britain, which is currently the highest in Europe.
Many MPs, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have criticised the move. Joe Benton, Labour MP for Bootle, said it was "morally objectionable", while Fiona Jones, Labour MP for Newark, said the Government needed to focus on discouraging teenagers from having sex outside marriage.
Dr Liam Fox, shadow health secretary, went further saying that the move left him "alarmed and appalled" and would "increase the risk of worsening the current epidemic of sexually-transmitted disease". Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the greater availability of the drug would lead to an increase in conventional abortions.
"The department of health has been promoting morning-after pills for 10 years, yet the abortion rate has increased. Despite nearly a million prescriptions for morning–after pills being issued each year, the number of registered abortions was at its highest ever in 1998.
"Making pharmacies, instead of GPs, responsible for providing morningafter pills will increase the risk of misuse and harm to women. Pharmacists may also find themselves legally liable for events beyond their control."
Nuala Scarisbrick, trustee of the pro-life charity Life, doubted whether the 16 age limit would be enforceable. She said: "In the tests undertaken in Manchester a quarter of those coming forward for the drug were under 16."
On the same day, the British Medical Association urged the government to abolish the age limit. Dr John Chisholm, the BMA's GP leader, said that pharmacies should be allowed to assess whether girls under 16 were competent to use the drug.
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