Expand Access to Emergency Contraception
There has been a lot of focus in the media recently about the “war on women” and conservatives’ attempts to limit women’s access to reproductive health care, birth control, and abortions, often through legislative means that cut funding or restrict access. Though controversy regarding these new measures has been widespread, an issue has simultaneously arisen regarding extant laws that allow women to purchase Plan B, the morning-after pill. According to a recent study, nearly one in five pharmacies has informed a 17-year-old girl that she cannot buy Plan B due to her age, though the law states that women ages 17 and older may purchase the medication over the counter without a prescription. Instead of allowing individuals to misinterpret or ignore the law and deny Plan B to women, we should be enforcing and even expanding these laws to include all women of reproductive age.
In the Boston University study of 943 drugstores in five major U.S. cities, 43 percent of pharmacy employees answered incorrectly when asked what the Plan B age requirement was when the caller identified herself as a 17-year-old, versus 39 percent when the caller claimed to be a doctor calling on behalf of a patient. Teenagers were also twice as likely to be put on hold and were less likely to speak to a pharmacist instead of a lower-level pharmacy employee. These barriers to access are particularly alarming because Plan B is most effective within 24 hours of unprotected sex, and its effectiveness falls with time—in fact, “the odds of getting pregnant rise by about 50% every 12 hours after the event.” Being denied the pill by pharmacies can lengthen the time it takes young women to acquire the pill, or even discourage them from purchasing it all together.
The very fact that the pill is behind the pharmacy counter can make accessing it in a timely manner difficult. Many pharmacies close on nights and weekends even when the drugstores that house them remain open, making it impossible for a woman who has a contraception failure on a Friday night to get the pill until Monday morning, when its effectiveness has decreased significantly. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in America about 750,000 women aged 15 to 19 become pregnant each year; 85 percent of these pregnancies are unplanned, and supporters of Plan B say that half of these could be prevented through the use of emergency contraceptives.
In Dec. 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, approved a proposal that would make Plan B available over the counter to all females of child-bearing age, meaning that it could be stocked in the aisle of a drug store. However, Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, overruled the FDA under the auspices that “the data provided as part of the actual use study and the label comprehension study are not sufficient to support making Plan B One-Step available to all girls 16 and younger.” This statement contradicted studies by the manufacturer Teva Pharmaceutical Industries which were accepted by the FDA; these studies concluded that girls aged 11 to 17 could read the package well enough to safely use the drug. In addition, in the case of misuse, it is impossible to overdose on or abuse Plan B, which is made of the female hormone progestin. This contrasts with other medications available over the counter such as aspirin or ibuprofen, which “can lead to serious liver, kidney or gastrointestinal problems, or even death” in the event of an overdose.
In order to promote women’s access to reproductive care and to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies each year, we must support and enforce laws that allow women access to emergency contraceptives. As long as individuals, be they the Secretary of Health and Human Services or random pharmacists, are allowed to override the recommendations of the FDA and the law, young American women will not be receiving the resources they need to make informed choices about their own health.