By Naima Abdi
Less than a month before the New Year, the fight to allow women of all ages to use Plan B without prescription ended. Levonorgestrel or Plan B is a type of progestogen used as an emergency contraceptive in tablet form. Marketed as the go-to solution for accidents such as a faulty condom or a failed birth control regimen, Plan B is not intended to replace regular birth control or to terminate an existing pregnancy. The drug is most effective when taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex and works to hinder female ovulation making it harder for pregnancy to occur.
On December 7, 2011, Secretary of Human Health Services, Kathleen Sebelius, denied non-prescription access of the drug to minors despite thorough studies on the pill’s safety and a recommendation from the FDA to make Plan B available over the counter to minors under 17. Sebelius’ refusal to approve the change of Plan B’s availability is backed by her belief that allowing the drug to be sold over the counter to minors, means extending access to girls of any age considered able to sexually reproduce, even girls as young as eleven and twelve years-old.
“…it is commonly understood that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age… Although the average age of the onset of menses for girls in the United States is 12.4 years of age, about ten percent of girls reach menarche by 11.1 years of age. If the application is approved, the product would be available, without prescription or other point-of-sale restrictions, even to the youngest girls of reproductive age,” said Sebelius in a letter to FDA commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., who approved the FDA’s recommendation to sell the drug over the counter.
The decision to keep Plan B out of reach was publically endorsed by several politically conservative and religious organizations and surprisingly by President Obama. “As the father of two daughters I think that it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over the counter medicine—and as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a ten-year-old or an eleven-year-old going to a drug store should be able – alongside bubblegum or batteries – be able to buy a medication that potentially if not used properly could end up having an adverse effect,” said Obama in a white house address shortly after the decision was made.
Though in the past Obama claimed a pro-choice stance, critics believe his support is a political ploy to avoid a confrontation with conservatives so close to the 2012 election. The responses to this issue are as black and white as blue and red politics. Right wingers and pro-lifers seem to think that this is finally the right move, while Liberals, advocates of science and women’s rights are just plain disappointed. “When President Obama took office, he pledged the administration’s commitment to scientific integrity. This decision is a betrayal of that promise,” said Cynthia Pearson of the National Women’s Health Network in a statement to AP.
Sebelius too received a well of oppositional feedback from organizations like Planned Parenthood along with several state senators. In a letter to Sebelius, Cecile Richards President of Planned Parenthood, expressed her concerns about the impact of this decision on behalf of the organization.
“At Planned Parenthood, we are working towards a nation where unintended pregnancy rates are on the decline because all people have access to affordable birth control and other basic health care. HHS’ decision undermines this vision which we believe the administration shares and we want to discuss with you how to make birth control, including emergency contraceptive more affordable and accessible for all,” said Richards.
With the national number of teen pregnancies already at 750,000 annually, it is likely that this decision will have significant effects on young females in ethnic communities that the FDA’s recommendation would benefit most. Research from the Guttmacher Institute indicates that African American and Hispanic teens are still at a much higher rate for pregnancy before the age of 20 than Caucasian women. Nearly 126 of Black and 127 of Hispanic women (per 1,000) between the ages of 15 and 19 will get pregnant unintentionally.
“It is alarming and it is stigmatizing – but the data speaks for itself,” commented Professor of Health Services Stephen B. Thomas PhD, professor of Health Services Administration in the School of Public Health and the director of the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity. “Unwanted pregnancies can completely change the life trajectory of the young mother and the infant,” said Thomas in a statement to theGrio.com.
Neither HHS’ nor any of the organizations in public opposition of the decision have released any alternate plans or strategies to supplement the ban of Plan B to minors. But in order to prevent teen pregnancy and target at risk communities, many believe that embracing the solutions offered by science and negating politics for the better good may cause the necessary push to combat this kind of epidemic.
“We need to leave decisions about patient protections up to the experts. No one should come between women and the experts that are charged with making impartial, non-political decisions about the safety of the drugs they use. Improved access to emergency contraception has been proven to reduce both unintended pregnancies and the number of abortions,” said Senator Patty Murray of Washington State.