Taking the morning after pill is a rite of passage for many teenage girls. Like getting a terrible tattoo on a mates holiday or screaming at your parents that you're "actually not drunk" while blowing fluorescent chunks onto their kitchen floor. Unfortunately, in the UK – a country of supposedly free birth control – the process of getting a free pill isn't as simple as just being handed it by a friendly pharmacist. It's possible to get it for free – but you have to jump through hoops and play the game.
First, you go to a pharmacy big enough to dispense the pills for free. But it has to be open, they have to have enough staff working and the person who's qualified to give you the examination has to be there. When you ask for it at the counter, the woman sometimes lets her eyes flit up and down for giveaway signs – too many ear piercings, a second-hand jumper. They'll take you to a backroom and ask a series of trick questions about the contraception you are on, how long ago the sex was and when your last period was. One false move and you're stuck.
In an email, NICE – an organisation that sets guidelines used by the NHS – told me they have no protocols around not offering the morning after pill, but I've been refused on various grounds. Once I said my periods had been irregular and they wouldn't give it to me. Another time they refused because I was flustered and was overly conscious of giving the right answers. The woman said I should go to the hospital or get a coil fitted, neither of which I wanted to do – or felt I should have to do, given the fact they had a very available stash of the morning after pill right there.
So what do you do next? Travel to another pharmacy to answer the questions differently and keep doing that until you speak to someone more lax, or simply in a better mood that day. Or you try to buy it online, which can be dangerous. Or you just buy it over-the-counter for a large sum of money.
Presumably it's made difficult and embarrassing to get free morning after pills to deter women from using emergency contraception as contraception? Thing is, it's available, no questions asked, to anyone who can afford the extortionate fee of almost £35. If you want to order it online from somewhere like Lloyds Pharmacy, for it to be delivered in time for it to be effective you'll have to pay an extra £5.99, bringing the total to £40.94. In other words, the health risks aren't a concern and the questioning isn't necessary – just as long as you have enough cash to afford buying the morning after pill over the counter.
We're privileged to have contraception in the first place, but everyone needs free and easy access to the morning after pill. When we did the VICELAND survey, 86 percent of you said you agreed with that statement. And many other European countries are going some way to understanding this; in France, for example, you can buy it over the counter for just €7 (£6).
Earlier this week the British Pregnancy Advisory Service called for an end to the "sexist surcharge" on the morning after pill, stating that the price difference was such that for some women it could be cheaper to go to France to buy the pill than to purchase it locally.
So I decided to do just that. I bought tickets for National Express's Eurolines coach – at £24 return, with a £5 booking fee – and hoped to buy the morning after pill from a Parisian pharmacy for £6, no questions asked, bringing the total to £35: the same as buying it in person in the UK, and cheaper than ordering it online.
I got up at 6.30AM and made my way to hell, the departures area of London Victoria Coach Station. Once we were settled and enough people had opened Tupperwares of smelly, recently cooked meals to fully saturate the air around me with the stench of tuna-cum-beans-cum-sweaty-ham, we were off.
This was certainly different from the classic British morning after pill routine I remembered, which – as a rule – goes as follows:
Panic strikes as you draft equations in your head mapping the time of possible conception against closing hours at various pharmacies, while bearing in mind the decreasing potency of the pill. You're texting fatalist messages to the guy who "did it" and begging messages to the mate who usually accompanies people to get abortions. You find a window between after school club and dinner time to go to the pharmacy, and then your mum starts screaming at you about babysitting your little brother, and you want to say, "Oh, I do not think you want me to do that, mum. The sperm has possibly met the egg, inside me, my uterus, and is digging its way in right now like the persistent little shit-worm it is."
Instead, I was on a coach with working wifi, headed for Paris. This was much more civilised.
After travelling through the mind-fuck teleportation device that is the Eurotunnel, here I was. Vive le France! Breathing continental air and, in contradictory terms, both nearer to the liberation of my uterus and just that little bit closer to Marine Le Pen – the head of a party that once called abortion "anti-French genocide".
At the rest stop, the French coach driver obliged in taking a picture of me with the coach. "You'd never be able to afford this," he told me, presumably under the impression that I'm really into coaches. 'You're right: I won't,' I thought. 'I'd be stretching to afford the morning after pill, let alone a fucking giant six-wheeled vehicle."
He then said I reminded him of Mr Bean – probably the most unnerving insult I've been served in recent memory – and hurried me back onto the bus.
Sitting back on the final stretch of my journey, I thought about the reasons a woman would need to take the morning after pill. It's infuriating that anyone would think it's because of pure irresponsibility – but they do. Maybe you're not on a contraceptive pill because you don't want the side effects; maybe you're too young and your parents would go ballistic if they found out; maybe they're religious and, again, would go ballistic. I had to change pills quite a few times because I'm very sensitive to hormonal changes, and being on something that didn't agree with me would send my already tumultuous teenage insides into a mess.
If I was in between pills or having a break I'd sometimes use condoms, sometimes wouldn't. Sometimes my fault, sometimes the guy being a dickhead. Sometimes I'd used them and there was a small chance the condom could have broken but I convinced myself it wasn't safe – and, just like any girl I knew, would get in a flap and buy the morning after pill with any money you could borrow or steal because you wanted to be safe. You wanted to be responsible.
Roughly eight hours after considering all this, I arrived in Paris, got straight off the coach and walked into the first pharmacy I saw. I strolled up to the woman behind the counter and mumbled, "Morning after pill, s'il vous plait."
She didn't understand, so I looked up what I needed to say and said it in a pathetic attempt at a French accent. She grabbed the pill and handed it to me – no judgment, no flickering eyes or questions about my period. Granted it might have taken eight hours to get there, but the pill itself only cost me €7.36 (£6.19).
It was that easy. So to celebrate I got a bit drunk, ate a regrettable McDonalds and got the night coach back to the UK in time for work.
At this point it seems ridiculous to state the obvious, but I will anyway: it shouldn't be possible to travel to Paris, buy a morning after pill and travel back for the same amount of money, or cheaper, than buying it in the UK.
The burden is already heavily on women when it comes to regular contraception. It is an extra burden on women's time and health when they have to use the morning after pill; it shouldn't be a financial one, too.
Although it's not totally free, £6 is a much more reasonable fee – the cost of two cups of coffee for not having an unwanted pregnancy. Being made to pay six times more than that is, frankly, disgusting.
There's no justification for the interrogation women have to go through to get a free morning after pill in the UK. There's also no justification for the price they have to pay if they want to buy it. It penalises those who cannot afford to be penalised. It sends the message that those who haven't sorted out their long-term contraception don't deserve what they perceive to be a quick fix if they don't have the cash.
So before we Brexit – before travelling to Europe becomes more complicated than just jumping on a coach in Victoria – and you find yourself in need, but you're not in the mood to be patronised or questioned over your outrageous demand for a pill that's going to make you not pregnant when you don't want to be pregnant, and you can stretch to the cost of buying a pill but want the chance to Instagram a croissant while you're at it, maybe just go to Paris instead of your local pharmacy.
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