AUGUSTA (AP) – The Senate has given final approval to a bill giving pharmacists the power to dispense emergency contraception to anyone without a doctor’s prescription, though the choice to do so is under their discretion.

Emergency contraception, also known as the “morning-after pill,” allows women to avoid becoming pregnant if taken shortly after intercourse. The bill also gives Maine’s pharmacists for the first time limited power to prescribe.

Maine is now the sixth state in the country to pass this type of legislation. A spokesman said Gov. John Baldacci intends to sign the bill into law.

The bill passed Wednesday on a 20-13 vote.

“It means another significant effort to reduce unintended pregnancy,” said Sarah Standiford, executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.

The Family Planning Association says Washington, the first state to introduce emergency contraception, has had a 30 percent reduction in abortion rates.

But advocates say the new law will be particularly helpful for victims of sexual assault who may need immediate help, Standiford said. Women will no longer have to wait until a doctor’s office opens on Monday to get the pills, she said.

There was no debate in the Senate on the bill, but the House and Senate had thorough debates before previous votes. The Maine Medical Association also has not taken a position on the bill.

Morning-after pills have higher doses of the hormones in regular birth control pills. Taken two at a time, the pills work to prevent ovulation or fertilization within more than 72 hours after sex, though effectiveness declines rapidly with time.

But some research indicates the pills may interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg into the wall of the uterus, the medical definition of pregnancy.

The pills are marketed under the brands Plan B and Preven and cost $20 to $30 a packet. They cannot halt a pregnancy and should not to be confused with RU-486, a pill used to terminate an existing pregnancy.

The bill will take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns.

AP-ES-02-26-04 1151EST



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