London (CNSNews.com) - Twenty per cent more women in Britain had abortions at clinics run by a leading agency in the first two months of 2000 than in previous years, an increase Marie Stopes International attributed on Wednesday to the lack of availability of the "morning-after pill" over the holidays.
However, pro-life activists challenged the argument, saying they suspected the agency was simply trying to push its agenda of promoting even freer access to what it calls "emergency contraception."
Pro-lifers regard use of the "morning-after pill" as an early abortion in cases where the powerful dose of hormones stops the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.
Some family groups also fear the treatment encourages a casual and irresponsible attitude to sex.
In January and February this year, 6,900 women had abortions at the seven clinics run by Marie Stopes International (MSI) in Britain, compared to 5,759 for the same period in 1999.
In a statement sent to CNSNews.com, MSI said the "lack of opportunities for women to access emergency contraception over the protracted holiday period, and particularly the requirement for a clinical prescription before pills can be issued, may have been a contributory factor to the sharp rise ..."
"We need a national commitment to providing emergency contraception over the counter at pharmacies without the need for a prescription," said Helen Axby, MSI deputy chief executive.
MSI said the 20 percent rise was probably linked as well to millennium celebrations. Abortion figures usually were higher in the first four months of the year because of the "impact of the Christmas and New Year festivities."
Nonetheless, the 20 percent jump was exceptional, MSI said, adding that the first quarter of this year could see 9,000 more abortions, or a total of 56,000, carried out than over the same period last year in England and Wales alone.
"This increase could be the tip of the iceberg," said Axby.
"It seems we may just be seeing the first swathe of women who missed their periods
after the holiday season. Others, particularly teenagers who are sometimes less aware of their bodies, may not yet have realized they are pregnant."
Paul Tully, the general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, challenged MSI's attempt to link an increase in abortions to difficulties in obtaining the "morning-after pill."
Despite strong promotion over the past decade, and the fact use of the treatment had increased to 70,000-80,000 prescriptions a year, "we still see as many, if not more, abortions than a decade ago. It's not reducing the number even though it's being widely promoted," Tully told CNSNews.com.
Tully said linking the two was "clearly part of the agenda that's being promoted by the pro-abortion lobby."
He said some advocates were calling for the treatment to be made available on a "quasi-prescription basis" - where pharmacists go through a checklist with the applicant before supplying the pills - while others wanted it to be sold with no restrictions whatsoever.
Pharmacies in the greater Manchester area, where teenage pregnancies are almost twice the national average, recently launched a pilot project to make the treatment available free and without a prescription. If considered successful, the project may be launched nationwide.
Tully said those promoting the "morning-after pill" seldom dwelt on the health risks and side-effects involved, which he said ranged from nausea, vomiting and other symptoms associated with a large intake of hormones to thrombosis and blood-clotting problems in some women.
Adam Atkinson of Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) said the abortion figures were "really sad."
"It's upsetting not only from the point of view of the children whose lives are being ended but also for all for those women who are going to be living with the consequences," he told CNSNews.com.
Like Tully, Atkinson challenged the use of the term "emergency contraception."
"It's preventing a fertilized egg from implanting. For those of us who believe life begins at the point the egg is fertilized ... it therefore becomes an abortion statistic rather than an issue of contraception."
Atkinson said CARE believed there was a need to send out a message "beyond the mechanics of sex and the options that are available" - a need to talk about "relationship education."
Making friends and establishing healthy relationships were "social skills that seem so lacking among some sectors of our society and relate directly back to the rise in the number of abortions," he said.
"We're so obsessed by the need to fulfill something through sex," Atkinson said.
Women should also be "empowered" to say no to sexual advances, to make decisions for themselves, Atkinson said.