Allowing emergency hormonal contraception to be available over-the-counter rather than with a doctor’s prescription does not lead to an increase in unprotected sex, according to a study published in the current edition of the British Medical Journal.

The study, based on data collected in the UK in the period before and after that country’s decision to allow the morning after pill to be available OTC in 2001, provides valuable ammunition for those seeking to win OTC status for emergency contraception in the USA.

The BMJ report appears to refute suggestions that, once emergency contraception becomes more freely available, some women may start to rely on it and be more prone to having unsafe sex. In fact, the level of use of different contraceptives in the UK study was similar before and after the morning after pill was made available OTC.

The proportion of women using emergency contraception was 8.4% in 2000, 7.9% in 2001, and 7.2% in 2002, according to the authors, who also note there was no increase those who reported having unprotected sex. And no significant change occurred in the proportion of women using more regular methods of contraception, such as the oral contraceptive pill, or in the proportion of women using emergency contraception more than once during a year.

The researchers note that the results suggest the predicted rise in unsafe sex has been overstated, and support the case for lifting the ban on OTC sales in the USA and other countries.

Last month, New York became the latest US state to vote to expand access to emergency contraception [[24/06/05f]]. The states are taking matters into their own hands after the US Food and Drug Administration over-ruled one of its advisory committees in refusing to approve Barr Laboratories’ Plan B emergency contraceptive for OTC use [[07/05/04b]].