The Directorate of Drugs Control Department is likely to direct pharmacies across Tamil Nadu to make emergency contraceptive pills available for retail sales, in what comes as a win for activists and women’s access to healthcare options in the state. This follows the non-availability and inaccessibility of emergency contraceptive pills due to intra-department instructions and a shadow ban on the pills across the state, which started 13 years ago. The department has also come forward to provide a clarification on the issue, ongoing since 2017, after a group of activists made a representation to the Drugs Control Department.
The emergency contraceptive pills, also known as morning-after pills, are taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sexual intercourse to avoid pregnancy. Abortion pills, on the other hand, are used to terminate an already-existing pregnancy within 11 weeks.
Social activist Archanaa Seker, along with a team of lawyers, wrote to the Directorate of Drugs Control, Health Department, Home Affairs Department, Social Welfare Department and State Commission for Women, urging them to clarify that there is no ban on the sale of emergency contraceptives in Tamil Nadu, and to direct pharmacies to stock sufficient emergency contraceptives. According to the mail, she wrote, “It appears that several pharmacies are acting upon undocumented ‘directives’ from the Drug Controller’s office and not retaining sufficient stock of emergency contraceptives and are refusing to sell the same. This directly affects women’s right to access these medicines and their exercise of reproductive choices and impacts their physical, sexual and emotional well- being.”
Speaking to TNM, Archanaa said, “The day after I sent the mail, the Director of Drugs Control had sent a screenshot of my email to all drug inspectors, demanding a clarification on the reason for non-availability of emergency contraceptive pills. The Drug Inspector of my area Murali Krishnan also came to meet me.”
“He promised me that all the pharmacies will stock emergency contraceptives in a few weeks time and there will be a clarification sent across pharmacists that the emergency contraceptives are not abortion pills or banned or illegal for sale. I also request them to send the same in writing,” she said.
Explaining the reasons for not stocking the pills, Manohar, president of Tamil Nadu Chemists and Druggists Association said, ”The [emergency] contraceptive pills are not banned but we have restricted the sale to only pharmacies in hospitals. The remaining pharmacies can provide the pills after putting a seal on the prescription and saving the photocopies. We started doing this after many people bought pills with the same prescriptions at multiple places.”
“Taking an overdose of the pills results in prolonged health issues for the women. In some cases, over-bleeding also causes deaths and we are being questioned for negligence. So this is the reason for not stocking a lot of emergency contraceptives,” he said.
A group of activists have been fighting to make emergency contraceptive pills available in the medical shops. The team, including Archanaa, also distributed emergency contraceptive pills procured from neighbouring states to ease the anxiety of women, especially during lockdown. The complete lockdown with four hours of prior notice and the travel ban that ensued snatched the option of use of emergency contraceptive pills for many women, forcing them to opt for abortions.
Archanaa recalls a phone call from an unknown number at 9.35 pm during lockdown. A man from Pollachi urged her to immediately provide emergency contraceptive pills that could help avoid pregnancy. Archanaa could not immediately promise a pill because the next day was a complete lockdown. Raghu continued to plead for pills since the couple was also from an inter-caste background. Till date, Archanaa feels troubled since she was not able to extend support.
“The call made me realize that we should not confine the issue to an urban elitist level,” she said. There is also a lack of clarity on issues surrounding emergency contraceptive pills.
Archanaa said, “There is confusion among the public. They think this is the same as abortion pills, but that is not true. Secondly, the usage of the term ‘shadow ban’ on emergency contraceptive pills has created confusion that there was a ban. But we need to make it clear that there is no ban. In Tamil Nadu, the pills are unavailable and inaccessible.”
In Tamil Nadu alone, Archanaa said, “The drugs with composition of Levonorgestrel hormone with over 2.5 mg or more is under schedule H, which needs prescription. The drugs with lesser 2.5 mg composition do not require a prescription. This is also confusing and it makes no sense to make an emergency pill available only with prescription.”
Archanaa is urging the government to consider all this before issuing a clarification. She also believes that her job will not end with making pills available. “I think I have a greater responsibility. I do realise I want them to be made available as a feminist but I am also concerned that this should only increase the discussion on consent and safe sexual practices. I do not want men to force women into unsafe sexual practice due to the availability of the pills.”