On August 24, after almost three years of delay, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed to allow women aged 18 and older to buy Plan B emergency contraceptive pills at a pharmacy without a prescription.
"This is a historic event in the struggle for women’s reproductive health and rights, and a long-overdue victory for science over ideology," says Sharon L. Camp, president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute. "For the first time we’re trusting women to make good reproductive health care decisions by letting them buy their own hormonal birth control, without a prescription."
Over-the-counter sales of Plan B promise to help women prevent accidental pregnancies by offering quicker, easier access to the time-sensitive pills. Research from the Guttmacher Institute suggests that in 2000, use of emergency contraceptives prevented more than 100,000 unintended pregnancies, 51,000 of which would have ended in abortion. Plan B is most effective the sooner it is taken following contraceptive failure, unprotected sex or sexual assault. Emergency contraceptives do not affect an established pregnancy.
Contrary to the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other medical groups, however, the FDA decision will still require women younger than 18 to get a prescription for emergency contraception—something likely to delay or even prevent use within the window of time in which the pills are most effective. A number of studies support the safety of the drug for young teens and show that easier access does not lead to greater risk taking by teens.
There were about 270,000 pregnancies among women and girls younger than 18 in 2002, the vast majority of them unintended. Delays caused by the need to obtain and fill prescriptions (particularly over weekends and holidays) can reduce Plan B’s effectiveness and may prevent many women younger than 18 from accessing it in time to avoid a pregnancy.
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