Should women ages 15 and older be able to purchase emergency contraception without a prescription?
Time is of the essence in emergencies
On April 30, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the over-the-counter sale of emergency contraception to women 15 years of age and older. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 49 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unintended, which makes our rate of unintended pregnancies much higher than other industrialized countries. The decision to expand access to emergency contraception is an important first step in reducing the high rate of unintended pregnancies in the United States.
Consistent use of reliable birth control is the best way to prevent an unintended pregnancy, but unprotected sex does occur, and sometimes condoms fail. Emergency contraception works by delaying ovulation, providing a safe, effective way to prevent pregnancy when it is taken within five days of having unprotected sex. Women younger than 17 years of age previously had to get a prescription for emergency contraception from their doctor and wait for it to be filled, prolonging the time it took for them to access a medication that needs to be taken quickly. Selling emergency contraception over the counter gives women fast access to the medication, thus improving the pill’s effectiveness.
The FDA’s decision has left some barriers in place. In order to access emergency contraception, young women will have to provide a state-issued photo identification proving they are 15 years of age or older. Most 15-year-olds do not have a state-issued identification, and even many older adolescents who could obtain a driver’s license don’t for various reasons.
Photo IDs and age restrictions are unnecessary hurdles to accessing emergency contraception. Doctors have been prescribing emergency contraception since the 1960s, and studies dating to 1974 have proven that emergency contraception is safe and effective for women of all ages. Research shows adolescents are as likely as adults to use it correctly and that increased access to emergency contraception does not increase sexual activity among young people or the rates of unprotected sex.
Improving access to emergency contraception offers health benefits such as improved maternal and infant health. The rate of unintended pregnancy is particularly high for low-income women, who frequently lack access to health care. Women who plan their pregnancies are more likely to receive prenatal care, which improves both their health and their children’s health. Emergency contraception also reduces the need for abortion by preventing unintended pregnancy.
Policies regarding access to reproductive health care should be based on medically accurate scientific evidence. As the nation’s leading provider of women’s health care, Planned Parenthood knows firsthand how critical it is that all women be able to get emergency contraception quickly and without hurdles.
Babis is Virginia field coordinator for Planned Parenthood Health Systems Inc. and Planned Parenthood Health Systems Action Fund.
Easy access to Plan B promotes risky sexual behavior in children
American society constantly grapples with how to balance teenage freedom with safety. We restrict our teens’ privilege to drive until 16; we treat them as legal minors until 18 and prohibit their alcohol consumption until 21. We delay in order to protect; after all, adolescents are still developing into mature adults. In fact, it is proven that the brain’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational decision-making, doesn’t fully develop until the early 20s. Yet several weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration decided to allow 15-year-old girls over-the-counter access to Plan B, which some call “emergency contraception,” even though it sometimes prevents newly conceived embryos from implanting in the womb.
Ideally, a 15-year-old girl shouldn’t have to worry about much outside high school, her friends and family and faith community. Parents should be an integral part of a 15-year-old’s health care decisions. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case with Plan B.
Girls under 17 have been allowed for years to obtain it without parental consent as long as they have a doctor’s prescription. Now, however, Plan B will be available on the pharmacy’s shelf without a prescription for purchase by anyone age 15 and older (including males). The FDA is eliminating from the process all responsible adults who could provide counsel to a girl about a potentially dangerous drug. There won’t be a physician’s visit for a prescription or even a conversation with a pharmacist. This simply defies logic.
Plan B is a mega dose of progestin, a synthetic hormone. While we often hear claims that it is among the safest drugs available, it is still a drug, subject to harmful interactions with other drugs (just like regular oral contraception, which is not approved for over-the-counter sale). Further, we need not look any further than the label to see that Plan B significantly raises the probability of ectopic pregnancy if a pregnancy already exists.
Moreover, Plan B is not intended for regular use. Girls (some victims of sexual abuse or exploitation) could use Plan B repeatedly. A trained pharmacist observing the same girl buying Plan B multiple times could be a lifeline.
No amount of oral, barrier or emergency contraception can eliminate the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.
Easy access to Plan B will simply promote riskier sexual behavior among younger and younger girls, putting their physical and emotional well-being at risk. Parents need to understand how easy access to Plan B will be once the FDA regulations are effective.
A mega dose of hormone will be on the pharmacy shelf alongside feminine hygiene products and nail polish. It will be there ready for purchase by girls, even those not old enough to drive.
Podboy is associate director of Virginia Catholic Conference.