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The government is considering approving over-the-counter sales of morning-after pills as the number of unwanted pregnancies among young people rises amid the novel coronavirus crisis, and out of consideration for victims of sexual assault.

The government will consider allowing sales of the emergency contraceptive method without prescriptions from doctors as part of its basic plan on promoting gender equality, slated to be approved by the Cabinet next week.

The draft basic plan says the government will “consider the use of emergency contraceptives without prescriptions from the perspective of health support and potential users.” The government added the sentence after receiving many requests through public comments on the basic plan.

“We understand the needs, and we will thoroughly conduct studies,” health minister Norihisa Tamura said at a news conference in October.

Currently, those seeking to use morning-after pills need to obtain prescriptions after a checkup by doctors either in person or online.

The pills need to be taken within 72 hours of intercourse to be highly effective, but many face hurdles to receive prescriptions in such a short time frame.

Also, many young people hesitate to purchase the pills, as they are not covered by the public health insurance system and can cost from around ¥6,000 to about ¥20,000 per unit.

The World Health Organization has designated the morning-after pill as an “essential medicine,” urging member states to make it easy to obtain it.

The number of junior and senior high school students seeking consultations about pregnancy rose during the prolonged school closures earlier this year aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Jikei Hospital in the city of Kumamoto, known for its Konotori no Yurikago (Storks’ Cradle) baby hatch, where parents can leave their babies anonymously if they have difficulties raising them on their own, had seen a rise in consultation requests from female junior and senior high school students starting in March, when the nationwide school closures began.

Asuka Someya, head of a civil society group working to promote over-the-counter sales of morning-after pills, and others submitted a request for the measure along with signatures of over 100,000 people at a meeting with gender equality minister Seiko Hashimoto on Nov. 10.

Someya welcomed the inclusion of the reference to morning-after pills in the basic plan as “progress,” but questioned the government’s plan to require users to take the pills in front of pharmacists to prevent resales of the pill.

“The requirement is a display of mistrust toward women, and it leads to psychological burdens,” Someya said.

The Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology are calling for caution, saying that the over-the-counter sales plan is premature and may lead to its abuse in the sex industry.

In response, the government plans to boost sex education and increase training for pharmacists, as well as strengthen the consultation system involving midwives, in addition to the morning-after pill policy.

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