Charlie Riedel/AP
Pharmacist Matt Hartwig holds up a dose of Plan B, which is commonly referred to as the
morning-after pill.

Emergency Contraception to Be Available to 17-Year-Olds Without a Prescription

March 24, 2009 04:02 PM
by Cara McDonough
A U.S. court has ordered the FDA to make Plan B available over the counter; opponents warn that women may overuse the drug.

Controversial Ruling on Plan B

In a 52-page decision, U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York said that the Plan B emergency contraceptive must be made available to 17-year-olds without a prescription. Currently the contraceptive, also known as the morning after pill, is only available without a prescription for women 18 and over. The controversial pill prevents pregnancy and works best when used within 24 hours of sexual intercourse.

Reuters reports that the ruling also included that the Food and Drug Administration review its decisions on rules for the drug’s over-the-counter sales; currently Plan B is only available behind the pharmacy counter. The FDA has responded that it is reviewing the decision.
Reproductive rights advocates have applauded the action.

"Emergency contraception is proven safe and effective, and today we have succeeded in expanding access to 17-year-olds and are one step closer to making it fully available to all women," said Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Many advocates had hoped that such changes would be made to rules governing the pill under the Obama administration.

Opponents of emergency contraception, such as the New York State Catholic Conference, which opposes over-the-counter sales of the drug, said less strict rules could cause young women to overuse it as a primary source of birth control.

“It's a scary situation when a judge who is not a doctor can overrule the FDA on the proper age when someone can take a medication," said conference spokesman Dennis Poust.

The FDA was criticized during the Bush administration for repeatedly bowing to conservative views in its treatment of emergency contraception. Judge Korman writes that the “the FDA acted in bad faith” and in response “to political pressure" and "repeatedly and unreasonably delayed issuing a decision on Plan B."

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Background: Plan B, birth control: The controversy and the science

Plan B is made up of a hormone called levonorgestrel, which works by preventing the fertilization of an egg or the implantation of a fertilized egg in a woman’s uterus.

Emergency contraception is recommended for women whose primary source of contraception has failed, and is to be used up to 72 hours after intercourse. The sooner the drug is taken, the more successful it is, which is why many advocates have pushed for over-the-counter sales and no prescription. Some opponents claim that the drug ends a human life; many abortion opponents oppose emergency contraception as well.

The Emergency Contraception Website, operated by the Office of Population Research at Princeton University and by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, includes a questions and answers section on the drug.

According to the site, emergency contraception does not cause an abortion. “No, using emergency contraceptive pills … prevents pregnancy after sex. It does not cause an abortion (In fact, because emergency contraception helps women avoid getting pregnant when they are not ready or able to have children, it can reduce the need for abortion.)”

Much of the controversy has been witnessed in actual pharmacies: Some pharmacists have refused to sell the drug, and have refused to sell birth control pills.

State regulations regarding the rights of pharmacists to refuse to dispense certain prescriptions vary widely in scope and language. Many follow the American Pharmacist Association’s policy, which states that a pharmacist may refuse to fill a prescription, provided that he or she then refers the customer to a fellow pharmacist or a different pharmacy. Some states mandate that pharmacists fill all lawful prescriptions.

Reference: The decision; women’s health


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