Leaders of a pilot study that allows Toronto-area women to receive so-called emergency contraceptive pills without prescription from pharmacies are claiming that the program is proving to be more popular than expected. But a co-ordinator for the Canadian branch of Pharmacists for Life International has doubts about that assertion.

“The demand has been higher than anticipated,” alleged Sheila Dunn, co-principal investigator for the pilot and the director of the Bay Centre for Birth Control. She suggested that emergency contraception – considered to be abortifacient in nature by pro-life advocates – has been underused because of “a lack of awareness” and “difficulty in accessing treatment within the appropriate time frame.”

More than 1,000 doses of the medication are reported to have been distributed since June by 33 Toronto-area pharmacies. Another 12 pharmacies are poised to hand it out as well.

While emergency contraception is available directly from pharmacists in B.C. (at the instigation of the former pro-abortion NDP government there), it is available in Ontario only by prescription or at hospital emergency departments, sexual assault centres and public health units.

Mike Izzotti, a co-ordinator for Pharmacists for Life International – Canada, chuckled when he learned that the pilot study leaders were claiming a large demand for emergency contraception.

“Why did Preven come off the market, then? That’s the question to ask,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any more popular than it used to be.”

Preven was one form of emergency contraception that was produced in the U.S. and distributed through the Oakville, Ont. pharmaceutical firm Shire Inc., beginning in October 1999. The company ceased distribution of Preven within a few months when it found that sales of the product were dismal, despite a drastic cut in price from $22 to $5 and the heavyweight support of groups including Planned Parenthood and the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada.

What emergency contraception proponents hoped to do was capitalize on and take advantage of women and the situations they got into by selling huge amounts of medications, said Izzotti. “They hoped that all women of reproductive age would have emergency contraceptive pills on hand … We have to look into this more. They’re speaking out of both sides of their mouths.”

Current pilot study leaders are saying their program will help prevent abortions and unwanted pregnancies. But emergency contraception, also known as the “morning-after pill,” is a double dose of a contraceptive specifically designed to make a mother’s womb inhospitable to a newly conceived baby. For this reason, pro-life advocates see it not as contraception at all, but rather early-stage abortion.

“How can you prevent abortions by causing them?” asked Izzotti. “It’s semantics. They’re saying a pregnancy isn’t established until the embryo is implanted, so if you kill or do something to it before then, it isn’t abortion … But they changed the definition of conception to mean implantation. They’ve changed the meaning of words so they agree with what they’re doing.”

Pilot study leaders declare that emergency contraception is “extremely safe” with “no serious side effects.” However, pro-life researchers suggest otherwise. Taking high doses of female steroid hormones can have short- and long-term effects on a woman’s health and future fertility, they say.

Consequences can be especially serious for females with conditions including epilepsy, diabetes, breast cancer, migraine headaches, and circulatory or cardio-vascular problems. Emergency contraceptive medications also cause high amounts of nausea and vomiting.

Izzotti said that as far as he knows, three kinds of emergency contraception are in use in Canada (though there are a total of five or six in all) – Preven, Plan B and Ovral. It is unknown which of the three is being promoted in the pilot study (a pall of secrecy hangs over the project), but Izzotti suspects it may be Ovral – in which case the medication is being used for other than its intended purpose of a basic contraceptive.

“The thing about the morning-after pill is, they’re keeping it quiet. I think they’ve realized that if they make a big promotion, like they did with Preven, it makes a lot of people upset … They don’t want to tell people. But we’ve got to make it public.”

Bizarrely, physicians are supplying “retrospective authorization” to the distribution of emergency contraception during the pilot project. That means that a pharmacist first screens a woman to ensure she meets some sort of criteria for use of the medication. She is made to fill out some forms, read information sheets on the drug and how to take it, and consults with the pharmacist.

“They ask 30 questions, such as, ‘When was the last time you had unprotected sexual intercourse? … When was your last menstrual period?'” said Izzotti. “The pharmacist asks questions and ticks off boxes. If the criteria are met, he gives out the prescription. Then he gets authorization from a doctor, after it’s been dispensed. The woman never gets a physical. Or she could lie to the pharmacist.”

The Ontario pilot study is funded by the Ontario Women’s Health Council and is due to be completed in 2003, at which time the council will make recommendations to the provincial government on the sustainability of the project.

As always, Pharmacists for Life is urging citizens to ask questions of their pharmacists about emergency contraception and other death-dealing drugs. “By directing questions to a pharmacist, you will be providing him or her with an opportunity to talk to the manager about the public’s concerns,” PFLI said in a statement.

“Your questions about being uncomfortable patronizing a pharmacy that supplies death-causing products will allow the pharmacist to bring up the subject in his work setting. He will then be able to explain that some clients are concerned about the product being distributed from their outlet.”

Campaign Life Coalition announced a boycott of pharmacies participating in the dispensation of emergency contraception when the pilot study was announced in the fall of 2000.

“This action, funded by the Ontario government to the tune of $373,000, is appalling,” commented CLC national president Jim Hughes at the time. “Pharmacists will willingly or unwillingly become the new abortionists.”