Extend the availability of Plan B to all women in need

The FDA's decision is a step forward but there are still prodigious injustices regarding its availability.

Abby Bar-Lev

The Food and Drug Administration’s Aug. 24 decision to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B for women 18 and older is a major step toward protecting the personal health care decisions and well-being of America’s women. Although it leaves cause for optimism, there are still prodigious injustices in the emergency contraceptive’s availability and the reasoning behind its limited access.

In August 2005, Susan Wood resigned from her position as director of the FDA’s Women’s Health Office. She did so in protest of the agency’s refusal – for political rather than scientific reasons – to make a decision regarding over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive Plan B.

One year later, the FDA has finally declared that Plan B should be available over the counter, without a prescription, for women 18 and older.

But the picture remains far from perfect. Although Plan B is technically available “over-the-counter,” it remains unavailable to those younger than 18. The emergency contraceptive will be available witout a prescription, but will be kept behind the counter and can only be attained with an

ID proving the person seeking Plan B is older than 18. There are several major problems with this distinction.

First of all, with Plan B available behind the counter, more control is left in the hands of pharmacists. Optimistically, that would not make a difference, but reality paints a different scene.

For years, stories have been emerging of pharmacists denying women contraception based on the pharmacist’s personal, moral, ethical or religious beliefs. It is hoped that the FDA’s decision to allow nonprescription sales of Plan B to some women will begin to rectify those types of situations. Yet there is reason to worry that a minority of pharmacists might continue to deny women their right to emergency contraception, despite the facts and despite the FDA’s decision.

Even if every pharmacist in the country complies with the ruling, it does not change the fact that the FDA itself still made a political and not scientific decision. Despite the FDA’s scientific advisory panel finding that Plan B is a safe drug (in fact, one member of the scientific advisory panel said the drug medically is “safer than aspirin,”) it is only available to some women. The decision to limit its availability to those older than 18 is discrimination based on subjective morality and political compromise, not scientific fact.

Plan B prevents a pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of sex and cannot cause an abortion. It will reduce unwanted pregnancies, and, therefore, will reduce the number of abortions.

Here lies the major problem with the Plan B decision. The women who are most in need of emergency contraception are being denied their rights. It is nothing short of irrational and outrageous. Women younger than 18 are the most vulnerable and should receive equal access to Plan B as those older than 18. Those being left behind in that equation are the youngest women, the women most unprepared to bear children and those with the most at stake by being denied emergency contraception.

Right-wing extremists make up a minority of the American population, but are forcing their extreme moral judgments and religious beliefs on the majority, which will yield destructive consequences for all.

Many are understandably lauding the FDA’s decision to allow nonprescription sales of Plan B. To be sure, it is clearly an improvement from a year ago when the FDA was so taken hostage by the right-wing that Susan Wood threw her hands up and left her position in disgust. The FDA’s recent decision is a step forward for women’s rights under an administration that has spent six years undermining reproductive freedom.

But has the United States become so regressive and so used to the right-wing religious zealots dictating policy that we are simply satisfied with whatever scraps of freedom we can get?

The decision to allow nonprescription sales of Plan B to adult women certainly is a battle won, but only to an extent. We must not be placated with a decision that only veils itself in justice and science while denying equal access to the most vulnerable segment of our population. Equal access to emergency contraception for all is another battle to fight, and it is a battle that can and will be won.

Abby Bar-Lev welcomes comments at [email protected].