Photo Credit: Courtesy of Teva Pharmaceuticals
Looks like the emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step won’t be any easier to come by, after all.
Today, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was all set to remove age restrictions that required childbearing women under the age of 17 to get a prescription before buying the “morning-after pill.” But in a surprise and unprecedented move, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s recommendation.
Sebelius’ ruling means that girls 16 and under will not be able to buy emergency contraceptives without a prescription. How can that be monitored? Because the pills will still only be available at the pharmacy counter for all consumers, regardless of age. Essentially, nothing has changed.
The pill’s maker, Teva Pharmaceuticals, had applied to make Plan B as accessible as condoms or tampons. But in a statement, Sebelius said Teva failed to study whether girls as young as 11 could understand the product’s directions and use Plan B safely. And since about 10 percent of girls are capable of bearing children as early as 11, those girls need to be studied as well, she said.
“It is common knowledge that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age. If the application were approved, the product would be available, without prescription, for all girls of reproductive age,” wrote Sebelius.
While I understand and even appreciate Sebelius’ concern, I think it might be misdirected. "We know it's a very, very safe drug that's impossible to overuse or abuse,” says Daniel Grossman, M.D., a senior researcher at Ibis Reproductive Health and an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco told Time’s Healthland blog. If that's the case, then what is Sebelius’ true worry?
Plan B can prevent pregnancy when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. However, it is most effective if taken within the first 24 hours. Having to call your doctor and request a prescription can eat up valuable time that decreases the pill’s effectiveness. And what if the doctor refuses to call the prescription into the pharmacy without seeing the patient first or without talking to the girl’s parents?
Sure, it’s easy to say young girls shouldn’t be having sex at that age anyway. And I agree -- they shouldn’t. But better to grant them access to all of their contraception options than push them closer to unsafe or illegal abortions. Besides, all other forms of contraceptives, like condoms, are available to anyone, regardless of age, no matter how good the intended user is at reading and following instructions.
It is terrifying to think that, had the new rule been passed, 11-year-old girls would have been able to waltz into the drugstore and pick up the morning-after pill. But when we break it down, the part that’s frightening is that they’re having sex, not that they’re seeking emergency contraceptives. After all, the ones who are buying Plan B are likely the responsible ones who made a one-time mistake that they’re trying to fix. Research shows that teens are actually better about practicing safe sex than single 30- and 40-year-olds. So maybe we should stop judging and start helping.
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