After a three-year fight, Martha Edmands is not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved emergency contraception (often called the morning-after pill) for over-the-counter sales to people 18 years of age or older on Thursday, Aug. 24. "We've had so much bad news over the last few years," says Edmands, the director of public and governmental affairs at Planned Parenthood. "It's a good day today."
The age restriction is not ideal, she says. "The FDA should make sure teenagers have access to every safe preventive measure." Still, in the political climate of the past few years, she adds, "at the moment, we'll take the win."
The FDA approved Plan B—an emergency contraceptive made by Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc.—for use with a prescription in 1999. Proponents began pushing for the pills to be sold without prescription in 2003. Opponents argued that it would promote promiscuity. "The FDA's been dragging their feet on it for so long. It's insane," Edmands says.
Plan B is a concentrated dose of the same hormones found in birth-control pills, but it is not recommended for use as a birth-control method. It is effective for 72 hours after unprotected sex, though the sooner it's ingested, the better. It works by preventing ovulation (the release of an egg) or by affecting the womb lining so a fertilized egg can't embed itself.
Under the new rules, expected to go into effect by the end of the year, a minor cannot walk into a pharmacy and purchase the pills. Edmands says it's important to realize that minors still have fast access to emergency contraception by going to Planned Parenthood and getting a prescription.
In 2001, New Mexico changed its state law to allow pharmacists to write prescriptions for the morning-after pill, says Dale Tinker, executive director of the New Mexico Pharmacists Association. Pharmacists are required to go through a training session before they can prescribe the pill. A prescription from a pharmacist would be another quick option for underage women looking to purchase Plan B. New Mexico is one of nine states that allows pharmacists to prescribe the pill.
However, Tinker predicts the change in the pill's status will mean fewer pharmacists will take the training. "Our population base is so small in New Mexico," he says. "They will have to evaluate whether [the training's] worthwhile or not." Tinker says the pill will be sold from behind the counter, so pharmacists will be able to check IDs. He hopes pharmacists will continue to counsel patients on the ongoing need for a regular contraceptive program. "We're hoping the pharmacists will continue to provide that kind of information for their patients," he says. "I think that opportunity will still be there."
Yet not everyone is pleased about the FDA's ruling. Since the morning-after pill takes effect before an egg is embedded in the womb’s lining, it is medically and legally considered a preventive measure. But an abortion opponent like Manuel Rodriguez, a member of Pharmacists for Life, defines Plan B differently. He says life begins the instant the sperm penetrates the female egg. "Plan B works by altering the woman's organs so they become hostile to life," he says. To Rodriguez, an Albuquerque pharmacist for about 25 years, this is the equivalent of an abortion. "It's the same as a person who has decided to kill someone or kill themselves and then the pharmacist gives them a loaded gun. In legal terms, he is an accomplise to the crime."
The morning-after pill is not to be confused with RU-486, aka the “abortion pill,” which acts after implantation has occured to terminate a pregnancy.
Women's advocacy and medical groups estimate that over-the-counter sales of Plan B could result in a 50 percent drop in the United State's 3 million unplanned pregnancies, according to an MSNBC report.