Over-the-Counter Emergency Contraception: The First Year
A little over a year ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved non-prescription sale of emergency contraception (EC, brand name Plan B) for women aged 18 and older, following a controversial delay of more than seven years.
Easing access to emergency contraception was a major victory for millions of women, but the FDA's politically-influenced process, and the unjustifiable limitation that women 17 and under will continue to need a prescription for EC, leaves unsettling questions about inattention, deception and delay on women's vital health care needs.
The FDA's approval came after the agency was heavily pressured by advocates, and Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) promised to hold up confirmation of an FDA commissioner-nominee until a decision was made.
In May 2004, ignoring staff recommendations, the FDA issued a "not approvable" letter to the manufacturer, stating concerns about adolescents having access to EC, yet offering no professional validation. Depositions taken in a lawsuit brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights found that anti-EC pressure on FDA officials came from White House political advisors.
This tale - only briefly summarized here - illustrates the difficult path that women's health advocates have had in improving women's access to birth control.
The NOW Foundation Report on Emergency Contraception details a number of remaining concerns regarding EC availability and legislation, followed by suggestions for individual action. Following are some of the challenges we still face.
Young women under 18 must continue to get a doctor's prescription in order to purchase emergency contraception, a barrier that assures that there will continue to be hundreds of thousands of unwanted pregnancies and many young mothers who did not plan to become pregnant and are ill-prepared to care for infants.
There are tens of thousands of young rape survivors each year who face the multiple barriers of finding a co-operative doctor, getting an appointment and locating a pharmacy that will fill a prescription for emergency contraception for a minor -- all within 72 to 120 hours of unprotected intercourse.
Five years ago, the Department of Defense placed EC on its Basic Care Formulary, required to be stocked at all military treatment facilities, but it was removed after pressure from the Bush administration and is only accessible at the few facilities that choose to stock it.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Clinton and Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine) -- the Compassionate Care for Servicewomen Act (S. 1800/H.R. 2604) -- would require full access to EC for servicewomen at all U.S. military health care facilities around the world.
There is also a national campaign by right-wing religious and political groups urging pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraception of all kinds because of religious beliefs or personal moral values. The Access to Birth Control Act (H.R. 2596, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. and S. 1551, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D- N.J.), would require pharmacies to ensure that a valid prescription is filled without delay or the pharmacy must refer the customer to another nearby pharmacy.
Read the full report at www.nowfoundation.org/issues/reproductive/ec_report.pdf