On Friday, April 5, Senior Judge Edward R. Korman of the Eastern District of New York ruled that Plan B, the morning-after pill, must be made available over the counter to young women aged 16 years or younger. The ruling overturned Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’ previous 2011 ruling requiring that young women be at least 17 years old to obtain birth control; this ruling in turn struck down the Food and Drug Administration’s own decision to allow Plan B to be sold without any age limits or prescription requirements. Is your head spinning yet?
This tug-of-war over the issue of who exactly gets to obtain emergency contraceptives most directly affects the girls who need access to emergency contraception the most: underaged girls who have few resources in the case that they have unprotected sex and fear pregnancy. It also affects low-income families, as many of them cannot afford to pay for an abortion. Not all families even have access to health insurance, and Plan B can seem out of reach when it typically costs $50 or more. Providing Plan B over the counter reduces the cost of the pill and makes it more affordable for women to handle an emergency situation.
Previous rulings over this issue had also created additional obstacles, such as requirements that young women obtain their parents’ signatures or see a doctor before being able to access emergency contraception. These tasks may take time and create an emotional barrier for women who are not comfortable disclosing their situations. In February 2012, a federal judge ruled that pharmacists could refuse to sell birth control if they so chose. These decisions all place difficult choices in the hands of others besides the woman who is directly affected, and they restrict that woman’s access to resources.
It’s worth noting that women who cannot obtain the morning-after pill may end up getting pregnant and having to choose between carrying a baby to term or getting an abortion, potentially forcing more young women who would otherwise have simply avoided pregnancy in the first place to have abortions. If people who identify as pro-life want to limit the number of abortions, preventing unintended pregnancies should be a priority, and a great method of prevention among sexually active young people is to practice methods of contraception.
Many women use birth control regularly; Plan B is for emergency situations when birth control is unavailable. It does not encourage people to have sex more often or encourage unsafe sexual habits. On the contrary, an experience getting the fish eye from a pharmacist when you ask for Plan B may well encourage safe sex practices for some time to come. It will also not necessarily affect children’s communication with their parents.
Although some people fear that their children will conceal information related to sex if they don’t have to go to their parents to ask for access to birth control, open communication should be encouraged even outside of this context. The reality is that people are having sex before the age of 17, and there needs to be a mature conversation between parents and children about sexual practices in general. Use of birth control may spark that conversation or not, but fear of lack of communication should not motivate parents to bar access to contraceptives entirely.
The bottom line is that it should be a woman’s choice to use or not use birth control or emergency contraception, just as it is her choice whether and how to be sexually active. Her choice should not be made for her by bureaucratic obstacles or limited access to resources. It is sad that judges have to rule on a woman’s access to contraception in the first place, but if they must, they cannot continue to play tug-of-war when young women’s futures are at stake. Let this ruling stand, and make sure that these women can actually choose their own futures, whatever their choices may entail.