Several Ann Arbor pharmacies have recently begun selling the controversial morning-after pill over the counter.

Mike Hulsebus
A sign advertising Plan B in the CVS Pharmacy on Stadium Boulevard. The pharmacy was sold out of the morning-after pill yesterday afternoon. (BENJI DELL/Daily)

It took about three and a half years of national debate for the controversial contraceptive to hit American store shelves, including the ones at University Health Services.

The Food and Drug Administration denied Plan B-manufacturer Barr Pharmaceuticals’ application twice and ultimately approved over-the-counter sales of Plan B for customers who are at least 18 years old in late August.

Part of the delay was due to concern that over-the-counter sales would increase “risky behavior” among girls as young as 11 or 12, according to David Hager, a gynecologist who advised the FDA during the debate.

The FDA has since conducted six independent studies showing that over-the-counter sales of Plan B do not increase sexual activity among young girls.

“Studies showed that women did not have more unprotected intercourse because Plan B was available,” said Susan Ernst, director of the gynecology department at UHS. “I don’t think the increased availability of Plan B will affect sexual activity at the University.”

Despite the studies, the FDA only approved the sale of the contraceptive to women who are at least 18 years old.

Ernst said she disagreed with the age restriction.

“It was an unusual ruling by the FDA to impose an age limit on something like this,” Ernst said. “I don’t think its necessary, but it’s what the FDA decided to do.”

To enforce the age restriction, Plan B will only be sold under pharmaceutical supervision, meaning that it will not be available at gas stations or convenience stores without pharmacies.

The FDA stipulated that Barr Pharmaceuticals must take necessary measures to ensure compliance, including sending anonymous shoppers to check on stores.

The pill is only effective if taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse. Advocates of Plan B say selling it over the counter will give more women access to the pill during the necessary time frame.

“Plan B is more effective the sooner it is taken,” Ernst said. “We tried to simplify it, but there were still barriers that prolonged the process of securing a prescription of Plan B in a timely manner (prior to the FDA ruling).”

Plan B is a form of emergency contraception that is intended to serve as a backup to birth control.

It works in one of three ways.

It can work as a contraceptive, preventing ovulation. It can prevent the sperm from coming into contact with the egg. Finally, if Plan B is taken after the egg has been fertilized, it may prevent the embryo from implanting in the uterus. Some consider this third form an early abortion.

Each pharmacy has the authority to decide whether it will stock Plan B.

Until this March, Wal-Mart’s pharmacies did not stock the drug. After several legal challenges, the company decided to concede to the demands of abortion rights groups.

Most pharmacies in Ann Arbor said they plan to stock the drug.

The UHS pharmacy received its first shipment of over-the-counter Plan B last week. The Rite Aid on Jackson Avenue and East Ann Arbor Pharmacy on Plymouth Road now stock it as well.

“There will be plenty of pharmacies who will stock the pill,” East Ann Arbor pharmacist

Steve Zawisza said. “If a customer can’t find it at one pharmacy, they can always try another.”

Most students said they supported over-the-counter sales.

“The accessibility of Plan B gives women more of an opportunity to control their own bodies,” LSA freshman Bethany Carlson said. “It will prevent many unwanted pregnancies.”

Other students said Plan B should have remained solely a prescription drug.

“It gives people the incentive not to use protection,” Business junior Whitney Kubera said. “The increased availability could cause a lot of backfire. It is not necessarily a good thing.”

Ernst said she views the new FDA ruling as a positive development.

“Over-the-counter access to Plan B will improve access for women and hopefully reduce the need for abortion services,” she said.

She said the only drawback would be if students started substituting the pill for their other methods of birth control.

“I hope that women still access health care for their contraceptive needs,” Ernst said. “Plan B should only be taken on an emergency basis after unplanned or unprotected intercourse.”

According to clinical trials, the side effects of Plan B are mild and similar to those of regular birth control pills. They include nausea, tiredness, menstrual changes, vomiting, diarrhea, breast pain, stomach pain, dizziness and headaches.

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