It was 2002 when the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare made Emergency Contraceptive Pills available in India, and 2005 when ECPs were made over-the-counter drugs. Ever since the legal availability of ECPs in 2002, Tamil Nadu has had a female chief minister for more than two terms and yet the situation is pretty grim for women living here. Maybe it is even ironic that Madurai, Tanjore, Vellore and Salem have been selected to be promoted as “smart cities” in 2016. And rated the safest city in India, Chennai apparently attracts 45% of health tourists visiting India. As such, it is termed “India’s health capital”.
I assumed the rants by women about not finding emergency contraceptive pills were occasional and trusted Chennai to be as progressive as it claims until I set out to look for it myself. An over the counter prescription free drug, which is available in some of the regressive cities in India, is not available in its health capital. I walked into a regular medical shop and I was told that they were ‘out of stock’. Soon, it became an interweb of obnoxious recommendations that were useless. A male friend walked up to the same medical store and asked for i-pill – but was denied too. We went to prominent hospitals and walked up to their 24x7 medical stores – still no. Most women in Chennai know of that one store that definitely sells it but I had to wait till the morning and chances are, they may be out too. It is funny that about a year ago, another woman on a reddit thread said the exact same thing about preserving the details of the store.
Contraception, not abortion
A handful of articles were written during this ill-defined ban. For example, this article from 2006 elucidates how despite legal availability, the Tamil Nadu government’s drug controller seized stocks worth Rs 50 lakhs, from Chennai’s pharmacies which they assumed to be “abortion pills”. The Drugs and Cosmetics Act empowers state government drug controllers to seize drugs only if they do not adhere to prescribed standards, or are misbranded, adulterated, and spurious. The drugs seized were indeed contraceptives based on levonorgestrel, and according to Dr Nirmala Jaishankar, a gynaecologist at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai. “This (ECP) isn’t an abortion pill. If pregnancy has already happened, this pill won’t be effective.”
And in this article from 2008, then senior obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Jayashree Gajaraj, president of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Society of South India in 2008-2009, said “Three years ago, when the product was just launched in the market, we told women that there was a revolution in the offing. Today, many women are aware of the option, but they don’t have access to the pill.” N Selvaraju, who was director of drug control in Tamil Nadu at the time and gave in to the demands of the “protesters”, says, “We are not against women’s rights, but this is a moral concern. The advertising of this drug will mean that women will think, ‘I can do anything and there is an easy way not to get pregnant’. We can’t allow such an attitude to grow.” The present members of The Drugs Control Administration, Tamil Nadu can be found here. “Moral concern”, mind you – not clinical, not psychological, not even rational. It is simply patriarchal.
One could go to a doctor to get a prescription, which would probably make it easy to purchase ECPs, but we are talking about a ticking time bomb here. And not to mention, some doctors do smack their lips at the first opportunity to provide patriarchal lessons to their patients.
The abortion rights in this country are a completely different topic. Of course, abortion is not illegal in India but the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act points out that both surgical and chemical abortion can be performed only on prescription and after permission has been issued by Resident Medical Officer of a government hospital.
Why protest against a culture of sexual freedom for women, irrationally? Why isn’t rape, child marriage, or sex between people with STD considered? While there is no noise around the OTC sale of prescription only drugs such as sildenafil citrate (popularly viagra), which is available for as cheap as Rs 11? A drug that enables a man’s sex drive. This link provides an almost endless effects of using a viagra. As for an ECP: “It doesn’t have any serious side-effects – the most common is nausea caused by the flood of hormones. “But take it with care. Too much ingestion of hormones can throw off your regular cycle and mess up your cycle,” says Dr Vinutha Arunachalam of the obstetrics & gynaecology department at Apollo Hospitals. Here is a meticulously drafted FAQ for those who might still have doubts.
In other states where there is no such ban on moral grounds, and on all leading e-commerce sites, ECPs are sold and delivered all over India. Popular brands include Piramal’s i-Pill, Unwanted-72 from Mankind Pharma, EC2 by Zydus, Norlevo from Win Medicare and E-Pill by Panchsheel Organics. That’s great, but what about the risk of not getting them within 72 hours? I know of some friends who stock up on i-pills whenever a friend from Bombay or Bangalore visits. And I also know women (and men) who have no idea that such a ban exists in TN, perhaps because they never needed ECPs – good for them, and condoms FTW. But the fact remains that for a country that has too many rape incidents and too few medical centres, providing ECPs is the least a government can do to protect a woman’s choice and dignity.
I stumbled upon an article that came out in The Telegraph last year about the arrival of “male contraceptive pills”, and how it is going to change “everything”. In India though, this is a matter of letting go of one’s manhood, and a taint in the face of a successfully abusive, patriarchal dystopia. For all you know, these “protesters” would ban this for “moral concerns” and baseless claims that male pills would mean kill “manhood”. There is enough importance given to Indian men’s penises as it is.
A version of this article first appeared on Medium.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this story erroneously said that the i-Pill brand is owned by Cipla.