The debate over emergency contraception, also known as the morning after pill, has intensified lately as supporters of the drug are lobbying for it to obtain over-the-counter status. The discussion has prompted both moral and medical debates over the use of the oral contraceptive that must be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
Nisha Gulati, a spokeswoman for the Feminist Majority Foundation, said American women would greatly benefit from increased access to emergency contraception because it would decrease the number of unintended pregnancies. The FMF has been campaigning for over-the-counter availability of emergency contraception since the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for prescription use in 1999.
“Emergency contraception is available without a doctor’s prescription in 26 countries — this is exactly what we’re going for here,” Gulati said. She cited the availability of emergency contraception in France, which she said has the lowest number of unintended pregnancies in the world.
LSA junior Ashwini Hardikar, a member of Students for Choice, said emergency contraception should be readily available for women. “In the case of a rape victim, it’s so important to have the morning after pill,” she said. “At least the rape victim won’t have to go through the extra pain of unwanted pregnancy.”
In May 2004, the FDA rejected the application for over-the-counter status for Plan B, a specific brand of emergency contraception. While the FMF said this decision showed the power of “anti-choice congressional pressure” on the FDA, the FDA said the decision was a result of inadequate information on the effect of the drug on women under the age of 16.
Plan B was resubmitted in July 2004 with a new clause that required prescriptions for women under the age of 16 and provided over-the-counter access for older women. The FDA has yet to make a decision on the proposal.
Meredith Hochman, a doctor at Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor, said she prescribes Plan B to women who have had unprotected sex. She said she supports the movement for over-the-counter status.
“There’s a time sensitivity — having it available over the counter will really decrease the number of unintended pregnancies and therefore decrease the number of abortions that are performed,” she said. Plan B has been shown to reduce the chances of pregnancy by 89 percent if taken in the first 72 hours after intercourse, Hochman said.
Gulati said emergency contraception has the potential to prevent 800,000 unwanted pregnancies each year.
But others said they feel that changing the status of Plan B would have negative consequences for public health. An article on the website of Concerned Women for America, a national conservative women’s organization, states that the change to over-the-counter status is not reasonable because of the lack of research on the long-term effects and the effects of repeated usage.
Hochman said if a woman takes emergency contraception more than once in her menstrual cycle, she may experience a problem with her next cycle — including heavier menstruation or irregular periods. She encouraged women to use nonemergency contraception to minimize the need for Plan B.
Hochman added that she would not advise women to use Plan B as their only method of birth control, even if it were available over-the-counter. “The cost of using emergency contraceptive pills (would discourage them),” she said. “It’s expensive in comparison to what you’d pay if you got on some form of birth control.”
One dose of Plan B costs around $20 without insurance, while one month of an inexpensive oral contraceptive costs around $30 without insurance.
The article from Concerned Women for America also cited an increase in sexually transmitted diseases in countries where emergency contraception is widely available. The number of Chlamydia cases in the United Kingdom — where emergency contraception is available without a prescription — rose by 3,000 in three years, according to the article.
Hardikar said the danger of increased cases of STDs is a result of abstinence-only sex education, not increased access to Plan B. “With a comprehensive sex education program, the ways to prevent pregnancy would be taught along with barrier contraceptive methods,” she said. “It’s important to educate people on both.”
There is no definite date for the decision on over-the-counter status for Plan B. President Bush’s nominee for new FDA commissioner, Lester Crawford, was denied confirmation by Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) because Crawford would not provide a date for the Plan B decision. The Senate can overrule this block of a confirmation with a 60-vote majority.
The FMF and its 166 affiliated groups are collecting petitions to influence the FDA’s decision.
Crystal Lander, the director of the FMF’s Choices Campus Leadership Program, stressed the importance of the campaign.
“It’s absolutely essential (emergency contraception) is available and stocked at every pharmacy and campus health center across the nation,” she said in a press release.