India: Popping morning after pills like candy

BANGALORE, India — At Sundeep Medicals, a busy drugstore at one end of Bangalore’s prominent Brigade Road, two teenage girls breeze in and ask for the iPill, and then argue over whether they should buy one or two.

“Buying emergency contraceptives has become like buying candy bars,” said Shreyansh Sankhla, who owns the store. They sell so fast, said Sankhla, that he ran out of stock last month and could not replenish as the distributor had sold out too.

Fifty years after the pill heralded women’s sexual emancipation in the West, emergency contraceptive is becoming a new phenomenon in India. Despite fierce opposition from conservative quarters, morning-after pills are available without a prescription and presage a different kind of sexual empowerment in this fast-changing country.

Aditi, a 21 year-old call center executive who did not want to give her last name, said the use of iPill and Unwanted-72, both one-pill emergency contraceptive brands, is rampant among her colleagues and friends. They no longer have to depend on their partners using condoms.

As the economy booms, India’s bigger cities are seeing an influx of young, educated middle-class workers from smaller towns and even rural areas. They come in search of careers and get financial freedom at a much younger age compared with their parents. Away from traditional family confines, they are sexually adventurous.

“There is freedom and a certain casual attitude towards sex,” said Sankhla, 22. “People are lenient about protection and end up thinking about it after,” he said.

The trend is partly fueled by the barrage of advertising, said Hukmi Jain, a sales manager at the well-known downtown drugstore, Cash Pharmacy. In a television ad, a girl is shown furtively looking for an illegal abortion clinic and her friend suggests the emergency pill as a safe alternative.

Large ads are splashed on billboards and in magazines. “This is an over-the-counter drug and there is no age bar in India,” said the elderly Jain, adding, “Young girls come in and boldly ask for the drug.”

But there is no denying that the emergency drug is bringing about a sexual liberation for women in India. Aditi says that the emergency pill provides a stress-free relationship with her boyfriend.

Gynecologist Vidya Mani said a worrisome fallout of this new-found freedom is the carefree attitude toward contraception. She said she has noticed a trend of younger women coming to her with problems such as irregular menstruation and pelvic infections because of the erroneous use of the emergency drug as a primary contraception.

Besides the sexual emancipation that the emergency drug is bringing about in middle-class India, there are serious downsides too, she said. “I have dealt with cases where young women have used the emergency pill much after the ‘safe’ time and have had to abort fetuses,” said Mani.

As if on cue, critics in cities from Chennai to Mumbai are demanding a ban on the advertisements saying they mislead young women into thinking that the drug can replace regular contraception. They fear that the attitude toward casual sex will also change because of the easy availability of such drugs.

Morning-after pills are supposed to facilitate control over sexuality and fertility. But in India, the bigger fuss is over the easy availability of the pills and their potential to morally corrupt young minds.