It’s Time to Free the Pill

Cross-posted from The Hand Mirror.

By Alison McCulloch

Back in the 1960s, when the Pill became available in Aotearoa New Zealand, the New Zealand Branch of the British Medical Association (the precursor to today’s NZMA) decided it would be unethical for doctors to let unmarried women get their hands on it. Doing so, it was argued, would be akin to doctors giving extra-marital relationships a stamp of approval, and the NZMA wasn’t about to do that.

If you thought doctors keeping us from the Pill for our own good was a thing of the past, think again. Sure, it’s no longer under the guise of protecting our moral purity – (most) doctors have (mostly) given up on that argument. Now, it’s all about protecting our health.

As recently as 1996, both the Royal College of General Practitioners and the NZMA opposed the reclassification of the Emergency Contraceptive Pill. “We have concerns that in a pharmacy the patient may be disadvantaged from receiving the greater advice that would occur in a general practice consultation,” the college’s chairman, Professor Gregor Coster, was quoted as saying in an article in the British Medical Journal.

Fast forward to 2016, and a new front in this seemingly endless struggle is focused on efforts to get the Pill, aka oral contraception, liberated from doctors’ prescription pads and made available over the counter. The most recent round began in 2014, when Pharmacybrands Ltd (now Green Cross Health, which represents 300 community pharmacies and has an equity interest in 80) and Pharma Projects Ltd, now Natalie Gauld Ltd., made an application to Medsafe’s Medicines Classifications Committee to reclassify the Pill so it could be sold in pharmacies without prescription, though only by specially trained pharmacists, following the model that’s now used for the Emergency Contraceptive Pill.

That application was turned down in the face of stiff opposition from general practitioners and the NZMA: the latter said they didn’t think prescription only access was a barrier to the Pill and wanted to make sure doctors continued to provide “the advice and counselling about its use and about sexual health in general”, while the College of GPs, apparently felt “as if they are being excluded from an important part of primary health care”. (Never mind that the actual users of this “important part of primary health care” were – and continue to be – excluded.)


My Decision. Kei a au te Whakataunga.

My Decision. Kei a au te Whakataunga


MEDIA RELEASE                                                   FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

17 August 2014


A new grassroots project aimed at sharing information about doctors and other medical professionals who hinder reproductive health-care access because of moral or religious reasons is being launched today online.

Called My Decision/Kei a au te Whakataunga (, the project invites people seeking services like contraception or abortion to report any experiences of hostile or unhelpful health professionals to the website.

myDecision_flyerFbTile copyBut the site is not just for patients. My Decision spokesperson Terry Bellamak said organisers were also inviting doctors and others who “conscientiously object” to some services to list what options they do and do not offer.

“From the standpoint of consumer protection, it makes no sense to keep potential patients in the dark about their health care providers’ intentions. ‘Conscientious objectors’ who agree can demonstrate their good faith by registering on our site,” she said.

Ms. Bellamak said the project, which has been a year in the making, was sparked in part by the 2010 court judgment that expanded conscientious objection rights of doctors, and the Medical Council’s subsequent decision not to mount a challenge, nor to publish doctors’ conscientious objection status on their website.

Since then, there have been several worrying cases, including one in Blenheim last year, when a woman was denied contraception by a doctor who was reported as saying he didn’t “want to interfere with the process of producing life“.

“In the spirit of the old ‘Hot and Cold Doctor files’ compiled by women’s health activists in the 1970s, we decided we’d have to do this work ourselves,” Ms. Bellamak said.

For more information:




Contraception, Abortion: Whose Decision?

An excellent but disturbing article recently appeared in the Otago University student mag Critic written by chief reporter, Josie Cochrane, about yet another health-care professional who apparently seems to think he has the right to pass judgment and offer “advice” on the sex lives of customers.

According to the article, “ECP Struggles: Pharmacy Leaves Women Feeling Judged,” a young woman seeking emergency contraception at a Dunedin pharmacy was told the “best method of contraception was to hold an aspirin pill between my knees”. The woman has complained about how she was treated to the Health and Disability Commissioner.

The Otago Daily Times followed up Critic’s article with one of its own, “Complaint to HDC Over Treatment”, giving Critic due credit – oh, and referring to the Emergency Contraceptive Pill as “ESP”??

Readers who keep up with reproductive justice issues may recall a related case out of Blenheim last year of a doctor who refused to prescribe the birth control pill because the young woman seeking it hadn’t yet done her “reproductive duty”; and instead advised she use the “rhythm method” of contraception.

Two prochoice activists, Helen Wilson and Alison McCulloch, followed up later in the year with a helen-alison-copyprotest outside the clinic as part of the Prochoice Highway tour, which made it into the Marlborough Express. (Sorry about the poor quality pic! Photo of a computer screen. The sign reads “Free Condoms! Women’s Bodies; Women’s Choice: ‘Rhythm’ (and blues) not for us!”)

How You Can Help

Some readers may already know that a group of pro-choicers is working on a project aimed at shining the light on “conscientious objectors” like these, who deny people the reproductive healthcare they want or need. It’s called “My Decision” and will comprise a website with a database of health-care professionals who refuse to provide certain reproductive health-care services, be they doctors, pharmacists, crisis pregnancy counseling centres … whoever. Users will be able to confidentially submit stories to the site and see what providers have been reported by other users or by the providers themselves. Conscientious objectors can provide information on what services they do and do not offer. It’ll be a bit like the old “hot and cold files” that women’s health advocates used to have, only online.

The My Decision website and is still being built, but in the meantime we would very much like to hear from readers who know of people or places that restrict reproductive healthcare access. And if you’re somewhat web confident and would like to help moderate the site, please let the group know. You can email your stories or offers of help to: mydecisionnzgmailcom