Morning-after pills might be sold over the counter

The FDA must decide whether emergency contraceptives should be sold without prescriptions.

Britt Johnsen

Students might soon find emergency contraception next to cold pills and aspirin in the convenience or grocery store.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration plans to debate this month whether Plan B, a brand of morning-after pill, should be sold over the counter. Despite some controversy, many University officials said the move could reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Morning-after pills prevent a woman’s egg from being fertilized or stop ovulation altogether when taken within 72 hours of having sex. The pills, made with a hormone called progestin, have no effect if the woman is already pregnant.

Some states – such as Alaska, California and New Mexico – already allow women to get the pills through a pharmacist without a doctor’s prescription.

Eve Espey, obstetrics and gynecology professor at the University of New Mexico, said that kind of access is a good thing until pills can be sold over the counter.

She said women often have a difficult time finding a doctor, making an appointment and finding a pharmacy to fill their prescriptions within 72 hours.

A 2001 Boynton Health Service survey found 68 percent of female students and 63.3 percent of male students had sex in the 12 months preceding the survey.

The mail-in survey was randomly sent to 3,000 students. Of 1,153 students who responded, 3.1 percent said they had gotten pregnant or had impregnated someone within the same time.

According to a survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health research, emergency contraception accounted for up to 43 percent of the decrease in abortions from 1994-2000.

Boynton Health Service director Ed Ehlinger is one of many University officials who think the morning-after pill could curb abortions.

“I think it’s a great idea when people need to have emergency contraception,” he said.

Stephen Caine, Boynton Health Service pharmacy supervisor, said the pill is safe. In some cases it can cause nausea or abdominal pain, but he said he has never heard any complaints.

Marilyn Joseph, Boynton Health Service medical director, said the pill is progestin only and does not harm unborn fetuses, but some confuse it with the abortion pill RU-486, which does harm fetuses.

Joseph said she has seen more students about the morning-after pill and said Boynton gives it to anyone who talks for a few minutes about why she needs the pill.

During the talk, Joseph said, doctors first find out if the student has been raped. If she has been raped, she can report it or receive medical assistance, Joseph said.

Doctors also ask if the student has a regular birth control method. If she does not, doctors usually help the student plan future contraception.

Joseph said there are no dangers in taking the pill regularly other than irregular bleeding because of hormonal imbalances. However, some oppose over-the-counter sales of the contraception.

Joseph said some criticize the pill because easily available emergency contraception might mean victims do not report rapes.

Dave Dorman, Boynton Health Service health educator, said some think the pill’s availability will cause people to take other contraception less seriously, leading to an increase in unprotected sex.

Junior Antonia Olson is one of those students. She said she does not want to see over-the-counter emergency contraception available anywhere, especially on campus.

Meanwhile, other students said it would be a useful change.

Graduate student Megan Son said bypassing a doctor for emergency contraception is more convenient.

Dorman said he does not believe the pill would cause promiscuity. He said he advises people to have a good plan for regular contraception, but he said a backup contraception should be available.

“It’s one more piece of the puzzle,” he said. “Sometimes there are problems, and we need a good emergency plan that’s easily accessible.”