The leading sexual health care charity steps into a major row today by urging women to keep the "morning-after" pill alongside plasters and paracetamol in the bathroom, in case they have unprotected sex. [...]

However, critics said the BPAS was encouraging reckless behaviour and lack of self-control.

As the Christmas party season gets going, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service says: "You don't wait until you have a headache before buying aspirin and it makes no sense to wait until you have unprotected sex before you get emergency contraception."

A spokesman told The Daily Telegraph: "We are trying to make the morning-after pill as normal as Nurofen. Having it at home should be as normal as that."advertisement

The charity's argument is that the emergency contraceptive pill can prevent pregnancy if taken up to 72 hours after sex, but can be up to 50 per cent more effective if taken within 12 hours.

It is rarely available to women in advance, the BPAS said, and many women struggle to get it within 72 hours, especially at weekends or during public holidays.

However, critics said the BPAS was encouraging reckless behaviour and lack of self-control.

Valerie Riches, the founder-president of Family and Youth Concern, said she was astounded. "All this assumes people have no self-control. It simply encourages a more promiscuous attitude to relationships which cannot be good for people in the long-term."

Norman Wells, the director of the Family Education Trust, said: "This is a very irresponsible move. The original medical assessment report of this powerful hormonal drug cautioned against over-treatment because of its unknown long-term effects.

"Adolescents, whose bodies are still developing and undergoing rapid hormonal changes, will be particularly vulnerable as a result of making the morning-after pill available in advance without proper medical advice from a practitioner who knows her personal and family history.

"When the morning-after pill was first approved for use in the UK, assurances were given that it would be used only in exceptional circumstances and would remain a prescription-only drug under the control of doctors.

"If we now start marketing it as a 'just in case' drug and make it as readily available as aspirin, we are embarking on a very dangerous experiment with unknown consequences."

At present, emergency contraceptive pills are available free on prescription from doctors and family planning clinics, and are on sale from pharmacies. But the BPAS said it can be difficult for women to get a doctors' appointment in time and many family planning clinics have restricted opening hours.

Pharmacists are only permitted to sell the pill to women who have already risked pregnancy. The retail cost of emergency contraceptive pills is a deterrent to some, at around �26.

Because BPAS is a charity providing not-for-profit sexual health care, its doctors and nurses can prescribe the pill for only �10.

Ann Furedi, the chief executive of BPAS, said: "Sometimes contraception fails, and sometimes we fail to use it effectively. In the real world, accidents happen.

"Emergency contraceptive pills give us a second chance to avoid a problem pregnancy. It makes sense to keep it in the bathroom cabinet, along with your plasters and paracetamol."

Advance prescribing of the emergency contraceptive pill has the support of the Faculty of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the BPAS said.

Family Planning Association research indicates that the emergency pill would prevent up to 95 per cent of "no-precaution" pregnancies if taken within 24 hours, up to 85 per cent if taken between 25-48 hours, and up to 58 per cent if taken between 49-72 hours.

The World Health Organisation stresses that the pill is for emergency use and not an alternative to regular forms of contraception.