‘Morning-after’ pill coverage expands

Editor’s note: This is an installment of an occasional series that provides updates and analysis on issues related to health policy.

As the Plan B , âÄúmorning after,âÄù pill approaches its 10th birthday this year, a recent ruling by a federal judge in New York, expanding the over the counter coverage of the drug to 17-year-old women, shows the drugâÄôs tempestuous history is far from over. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman ruled last week the Federal Drug Administration had acted improperly in restricting access to the drug in 2006, responding to political pressure from the former administration regarding the decision to allow 17-year-old women access to Plan B without a prescription. âÄúWeâÄôre encouraged that it puts womenâÄôs health ahead of politics,âÄù said Kathi Di Nicola , spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. âÄúIt will help in our fight to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.âÄù National figures suggest only a small proportion of women have taken Plan B after unprotected sex in order to prevent pregnancy, but according to statistics from Boynton Health Service, about 12 percent of sexually active University of Minnesota women indicated they had used it at least once. âÄúWe know that college students use it very appropriately,âÄù said Dr. Edward Ehlinger, director of Boynton Health Service. âÄúMost people if they use it, they use it once.âÄù Ehlinger and Boynton pharmacy supervisor Steve Cain have worked to increase access for students to the Plan B pill on campus. Cain said Boynton did not see a huge increase of Plan B purchases after it went over the counter to 18-year-old women and older in 2006, because BoyntonâÄôs pharmacy has limited hours on the weekend. Boynton was among the first clinics in the country to dispense the emergency contraceptive pill, he said, as part of a pilot program. âÄúThis is the best way to prevent unintended pregnancies,âÄù Cain said. Ehlinger said FDA officials had originally recommended the drug be available over the counter to everyone, because there was no scientific evidence supporting the age restrictions. Judge Korman ruled, âÄúno useful purpose would be served by continuing to deprive 17 year olds access to Plan B without a prescription,âÄù and ordered the coverage be expanded within 30 days. Di Nicola, of Planned Parenthood, said attitudes toward emergency contraceptives have evolved since it was first approved by the FDA in 1999. âÄúWeâÄôre starting to get the word out that this is something every woman should have in her medicine cabinet,âÄù she said, adding that ideally a woman should consult with her physician first to determine if itâÄôs the appropriate method of back-up contraceptives. The attitudes have even evolved to include Erika, a junior at a local Christian university, who said her views on the subject changed last year when she used the drug. Erika chose not to be fully identified to respect the privacy of her sexual health. Her first partner pressured her to use Plan B a year ago after the first time they had sex, Erika said. She changed her mind after considering what it would be like to talk to her parents about her situation. âÄúI never thought IâÄôd be one of those girls who had to take it,âÄù Erika said, adding that prior to her experience she probably would have judged or looked down on others for having used the drug. Erika says now she understands that certain circumstances may lead to women needing emergency contraception. âÄúIâÄôm a good example of it âÄì that was the first time I ever had sex, I was 20-years-old at the time,âÄù she said. âÄúIt wasnâÄôt like I was being irresponsible at all.âÄù SheâÄôs still hesitant to encourage increased access to Plan B, and said it may encourage people to have unprotected or irresponsible sex. But, men should have just as much responsibility as women in the decision to use or purchase emergency contraception, after all, âÄúit takes two to have sex,âÄù she said. Cain, the pharmacist, said although he doesnâÄôt remember any instances of men coming in by themselves to purchase Plan B, often times heâÄôs seen couples coming in together. Anyone over the age of 17, with government issued-identification, can purchase the drug, regardless of gender. As for the students who may be too ashamed to go to the pharmacy to purchase emergency contraceptives? Ehlinger challenged, âÄúWhat would be more embarrassing, asking for Plan B or having to tell your parents that youâÄôre pregnant?âÄù âÄî Emma L. Carew is a senior staff reporter.