Recently, the Food and Drug Administration recommended lifting the age restriction on Plan B One Step to make it available over the counter to women of all ages. Unfortunately, the Department of Health and Human Services did not take the FDA’s recommendation.
In doing so, the government missed a huge opportunity to make emergency contraception easier to access, thereby taking a step forward in reducing the number of unintended pregnancies in the United States.
While this decision was a huge disappointment and setback for women’s health, it will not hinder Planned Parenthood’s ability to ensure that clients know where and how to access emergency contraception. We know that access to effective contraception isn’t just a convenience; it is an urgent health need for women across the country.
Emergency contraception is birth control and works by preventing pregnancy (contrary to claims by anti-choice organizations, emergency contraception will not work if a woman already is pregnant). It must be taken within five days of unprotected sex, but the sooner you take it, the more effective it is, which is why access and availability are so important.
Currently, emergency contraceptives must be kept behind pharmacy counters, and women younger than 17 need a prescription to access it. Lifting the age restriction and allowing Plan B One Step onto store shelves would remove barriers that women face in purchasing it. For example, women of all ages face obstacles of limited pharmacy hours as well as the potential for a pharmacist to refuse a patient access to the medication based on religious grounds.
Nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. each year are unintended. The average American woman will use contraceptives for about three decades if she is planning for a family of two children. Even women on a consistent, effective form of birth control can face a contraceptive failure in that time frame. This is the purpose of emergency contraception.
The reality is most teens will have sex at least once before age 17. Each year, 750,000 young women younger than 20 become mothers in the U.S., the highest rate of teen pregnancy among developed countries. In 2009, 6,272 women younger than 20 gave birth in Colorado. On average, 17 babies are born to teens in Colorado every day — or about one baby born every 84 minutes. We should help teens who are facing a risk of unintended pregnancy take quick action to protect themselves, not put more barriers in their way.
Unfortunately, anti-choice activists have pushed the idea of 11- and 12-year-old girls rushing to the local market to stockpile emergency contraception. As crazy as that sounds, it becomes even more ridiculous when you keep in mind that very few girls are sexually active at that age and even fewer are willing or able to pay the about $50 most pharmacies charge for a treatment they don’t need.
Planned Parenthood strongly supports parents in their efforts to protect their teens’ sexual health, and we work with teens to encourage responsible decisions and help them delay sex until they are ready for it. Studies consistently show that the more we — as parents, as community leaders, as educators — provide honest, medically accurate information to young people, the more likely they are to make responsible decisions and delay sexual activity.
So whether you or someone you know needs emergency contraception right now, or wants to store it in their medicine cabinet just in case the unexpected happens, Planned Parenthood’s Steamboat Springs health center is here for you.
Health center manager, Planned Parenthood of Steamboat Springs