Boots and charity in bitter legal clash over emergency contraception campaign

A charity providing abortion services has said it is "extremely saddened" to have received two legal letters from Boots asked it to cease campaigning activities around the retailer's pricing and statements on emergency contraceptives.

A briefing battle today (Thursday) broke out between Boots and the British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS), weeks after the two organisations first clashed publicly.

In recent months, BPAS has encouraged a number of retailers to lower the price of emergency contraception, encouraging supporters "angry" about the issue to email Boots through a specially-created website.

At the end of July, Boots apologised publicly after its chief pharmacist Marc Donovan said the company might "incentivise inappropriate use" of emergency contraception by lowering its price from £28.25, and released a statement saying it would now look at sourcing less expensive versions of the product.

Today (31 August), BPAS told a number of media outlets that lawyers acting for Boots had sent BPAS a letter on 1 August accusing it of "facilitation and tacit encouragement of personal abuse" that had "caused immense personal distress" by creating the website. BPAS also said it had been told by law firm Schillings that it should not make this legal warning public.

BPAS initially provided that statement under embargo to the following day (1 September) - until Boots later said it would be rolling out the emergency contraceptive Levonorgestrel at a lower cost of £15.99.

In a subsequent statement, BPAS said it was "pleased" by this development. However, its director of external affairs Clare Murphy added: "We are extremely saddened that Boots feels the need to resort to legal warnings against a charity representing the concerns of women in the process."

Murphy said Boots' lawyers had sent another letter asking it to withdraw the press release referring to the first legal letter. BPAS instead published that first release online.

Boots 'wants to protect staff'

A statement from Boots said: "As a responsible employer, we actively seek to protect our colleagues from abuse and harassment. In our legal letter to BPAS we made it very clear that we welcome the debate on the provision of EHC, and respect their right to raise this issue with us.

"We asked them simply to remove personal email details from their campaign widget and to agree not to encourage personal abuse of our people. We provided examples of where our employees have received abuse by email and social media in response to BPAS’s campaign. BPAS have not yet agreed to do this and we will continue to ask that they agree to our simple request, which was made only to protect the interests of our employees. We hope to receive a constructive response from BPAS, and do not wish to comment further at this time."

BPAS: there was no 'abuse'

BPAS head of media and policy research Katherine O’Brien told PRWeek the charity had kept an eye on emails sent to Boots through its website, and said the retailer had "mischaracterised" these communications.

Of Boots' first letter, she said: "Yet again, Boots has completely misjudged the mood of the public on this issue. It is bizarre that they thought they would restore their reputation by issuing a legal warning to a charity rather than taking the simple, straightforward action that customers, parliamentarians, and healthcare professionals have implored them to take.

"While Boots were clearly hoping that we would not share news of their legal action, we believe it is the right thing to do. Members of the public deserve to know that not only were their requests for affordable EC ignored, but that they have been mischaracterised as abuse. We believe customers will continue to vote with their feet until Boots finally ditch the sexist surcharge on emergency contraception, and we look forward to another public apology – only this time for it to be followed by action."

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