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Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Are women stupid?

Are women stupid? We think not. But some people clearly think women are stupid, and show that they do so every day. They are pharmacists.

While the morning-after pill (or emergency contraception) is having a hard time of it in some countries, notably Chile and parts of the USA, it's accessibility in the UK has been more or less straightforward – except on odd occasions when someone has refused to sell it because of his or her religion.

Indeed, it's religious objections that usually get in the way of women's ability to buy what seems to be an eminently sensible drug – but, then, many religionists would deny a woman the morning-after pill if she'd just been raped.

But this article in the Guardian is not about religion. The author, Ellie Levenson, tells of how she had to lie in order to be able to get the medication for a friend. After telling the truth and being denied it twice, she had to say it was for herself (an ironic reversal of the embarrassment scenario whereby you go to the pharmacy for something for your pubic lice, say, but say it's for "a friend", and the chemist gives you one of those "Yes, of course it is" looks).

The stark fact is that, when she had previously told the truth, the pharmacists did not trust her to buy the pill for someone else. So where does that leave mothers who need to pick it up for daughters who are at school or women who need to pick it up for friends who are at work all day and can't get to a chemist?

This is the question being asked by a campaigning website called Women Are Not Stupid. So is the question as to why the pill is not available in advance, but only after the event.

Pharmacists say the restrictions are there because they need to ask women certain questions before they will dispense the pill. But this presupposes that women are too stupid to know how or when to use it or to read the instructions.

One does wonder, though, why a woman planning to have sex this week, tomorrow, in two days' time, can't simply lie and say she's had it already and the condom burst, and then save the pill for the day after the happy union? But perhaps some women just don't want to lie or find lying very difficult – especially if they're going to be faced with questions from the pharmacist.

"If we are clever enough to decide when we take a paracetamol," writes Levenson, "we are clever enough to have the morning-after pill in the bathroom cabinet for emergencies, and to read the instructions to decide whether or not we should take it."

Since publishing the article, Levenson told me, “The website is meant to draw attention to the current rules around emergency contraception and direct people to the petition on the Downing Street website that asks for a change in the rules. So far over 200 people have signed the petition – and I hope your readers will, too – which means the relevant government department has to give a formal response in a year's time when the petition ends.

“There's been a lot of press interest so far,” she continued, “and the next step is to start lobbying politicians and other interested parties such as the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. As things stand at the moment women can go to their pharmacist and lie in order to get advance provision of emergency contraception or to get it for someone else, but why should we have to lie? I want the rules and practice changed so that we can all access emergency contraception easily without the need for lies or furtive trips to local pharmacists.”

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