TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan may ease rules on the sale of the "morning-after pill" so it can be bought without a prescription as early as next year, Kyodo news agency said on Thursday, a reform that would bring Japan in line with nearly 100 other countries.
The emergency contraception levonorgestrel, sold as NorLevo, is only available in Japan with a prescription - a situation decried by activists, who say it should be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex.
Getting a prescription quickly can be hard for victims of rape or other sexual violence, they say. Levonorgestrel and similar drugs work mainly by delaying ovulation and should be taken within 72 hours of sex.
The government is leaning towards making the pills available without prescription, perhaps as early as 2021, Kyodo reported.
A health ministry official said selling the pills without a prescription was being discussed as part of measures to improve access to them, but no timeline had been set.
"We are working to improve knowledge about contraception and to make it easier to get the pills in an appropriate way, such as increasing understanding among pharmacists," said the official, who declined to be identified.
"Dispensing them without prescriptions is also being considered, but there's no schedule for it, not next year the way it's being reported."
In August, a senior official at the Japan Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists sparked an uproar when he said that women had not had enough education about sex and contraception, and he worried that making the pills available over-the-counter would lead to women being irresponsible.
A petition on Change.org calling for non-prescription sales of the drug in Japan noted that knowledge about proper contraception was often lacking, sometimes leading to unwanted pregnancies even with consensual sex. It had just over 90,000 signatures as of Thursday.
The government has in the past dragged its heels on improving access to contraception. In 1999, it approved the safer, low-dose birth control pill after nearly a decade of discussion - just after the anti-impotence drug Viagra won approval in only six months.
Condoms remain a major form of birth control in Japan.
Abortions are legal though the number has been falling steadily, with some 162,000 taking place in the fiscal year ending in March 2019, according to government data.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Robert Birsel)
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