Pregnancy pill debate rages

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Pregnancy pill debate rages

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It’s a weekday afternoon and the clock points to 6 p.m. The sun hasn’t set yet, but a young couple, each wearing a backpack, enters a motel in a back alley near Sinchon Station in Seodaemun District, western Seoul.

The Sinchon area is known as one area where emergency contraceptive pills that help prevent pregnancy after sex are most popularly sold.

At a pharmacy near one of the motels on Tuesday and Wednesday, four young women purchased morning-after pills after submitting medical prescriptions to the pharmacist.

Since it was on a weekday that they had visited the store, it was easier for them to visit the doctor for the paperwork before visiting the pharmacist.

Last Saturday, things were different. That evening, a female college student entered a pharmacy and asked for a morning-after pill. However, she was denied because she didn’t have a prescription. The 45-year-old pharmacist, surnamed Jung, sent her out empty- handed, telling her to visit the doctor before she came to the pharmacy. The student never came back.

“We close at around 8 p.m. on Saturdays. Usually around 5 to 6 young women visit us for pills without giving us a prescription,” Jung said. “Only 10 to 20 percent come back with approval from doctors.”

Morning-after pills were introduced to consumers in November 2001. Back then, the government mandated that in order to purchase pills, a doctor’s prescription was necessary.

During weekdays, it is relatively easy to visit a hospital for a prescription, but during weekends, hospitals are generally closed. Females find it difficult to get morning-after pills, which are helpful only if taken within 72 hours after having sex, and are more effective the sooner they are taken after sex.

Teenagers in particular are often not aware that medical approval is required before buying the pills and are often denied.

“Some teenagers come and urgently ask us for pills out of concern that they may get pregnant, however there is nothing we can do,” said a pharmacist working in Suwon, Gyeonggi.

At a pharmacy in January during the Lunar New Year holiday, a male college student knocked on the door of a pharmacy in Nowon District, northern Seoul.

As he was without a prescription, he cried, “I have to buy a morning-after pill and there is absolutely no hospital open and I had to walk more than three hours to find one pharmacy open.”

The 69-year-old pharmacist asked, “How many hours have passed since you had sex?” and he answered, “Almost 72 hours.” She then became worried and gave him the pills after jotting down his identification number and name. She asked him to bring her a prescription after the holiday is over, which is illegal.

It isn’t easy for a female teenager to visit the hospital for a prescription. A female high school student in Seoul recently had sex with her boyfriend and the date overlapped with her ovulation period. She said, “I’m afraid of seeing the obstetrician alone, and I don’t want to tell my boyfriend to go with me.”

“It’s very hard for me to talk about this with my parents too,” she said, noting that if she receives a prescription for a morning-after pill, the transaction will be recorded.

According to sources, many women have given up using the pills as an option as they fear going to the hospital. For some, they are too ashamed to speak with a doctor, and others are afraid their doctor visits will leave a medical record that will resurface when they get married. Some choose to abort their babies rather than have an unwanted pregnancy.

“It was hard for me to get a prescription for the pills, so I didn’t take them,” said a 20-year-old female who asked to remain anonymous. “Fortunately, I didn’t get pregnant, but if I did, I would have considered an abortion.”

Since last year, the government has intensified its monitoring of abortions, but still, purchasing an abortive drug online is a common practice as it isn’t easy raising a child as a single mother.

They receive child care subsidies, but the overall welfare policy falls behind other countries and ultimately they choose to put their child up for adoption.

Among young people, there is a rising voice that the government should allow people to purchase emergency contraceptive pills without having to receive a medical prescription.

“Using a condom while having sex isn’t considered taboo,” said a 26-year-old male graduate student. “The same goes for morning-after pills. We’re all adults, and we have the right to judge.”

A 23-year-old female university student, however, was concerned that “If emergency contraceptive pills become available as over-the-counter drugs, guys will refuse to use condoms, which will only cause more trouble.”

In other developed countries, couples can easily buy morning-after pills without visiting the hospital.

Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows morning-after pills to be sold over the counter to adults, while those under 18 years of age require a medical prescription. In 2006, President George W. Bush changed the law to allow easier access despite criticism from the religious circle. Previously, Americans of all ages needed a prescription.


By Shin Sung-sik, Park Su-ryon [angie@joongang.co.kr]

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