It’s Called Emergency Contraception for a Reason

One pill Up until a few years ago, if the condom slipped, intercourse was non-consensual, or for any reason you had unprotected sex, you would have no choice but to sweat it out and wait for your next period, hoping the fertility gods decided to give you a pass. Fortunately, a few years ago, emergency contraception (EC) became available over-the-counter so a concerned woman wouldn’t have to face anyone other than a pharmacist to get it. Unless, that is, you were under the age of 17.

Last month, Judge Edward Korman overturned the 2011 decision to restrict EC. And yesterday, the FDA announced that, going forward, anyone over the age of 15 can now purchase EC without a prescription.

EC was first discovered in 1974 when it was found that multiple birth control pills taken immediately after unprotected intercourse prevented pregnancy. While many gynecologists were aware of this “off label” use, emergency pills were not known or prescribed by the majority of physicians in this country. In 1998, emergency oral contraception became FDA approved, and Preven, followed by Plan B, hit the market.

Emergency contraception (EC) involves taking 1 or 2 pills within 5 days of unprotected intercourse. The hormones in most types of EC are the same hormones commonly found in birth control pills. The difference between emergency contraception and standard oral contraceptives is in the dosage and timing. The sooner the pills are taken, the more effective – hence, the “morning after” pill – but it is still highly effective as long as it is taken within 5 days of unprotected intercourse. Side effects are minimal and can include nausea, vomiting and light bleeding. If pregnancy does occur, or if you are already pregnant, there is no risk to the developing fetus. Note: Plan B One-Step, the brand that got the FDA okay for those 15 years and older, only requires taking one pill, which has to be taken within 3 days of unprotected intercourse.

In 2011, White House cabinet member, Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, unilaterally decided the pill would be available without a prescription only to those 17 and older, despite the FDA’s finding that it was safe and effective. She made this decision not because it was dangerous to teens  (it has been proven in multiple scientific studies that emergency contraception is safe and effective in girls as young as 11), but rather because of pressure from conservative groups who declared that easy access would lead to promiscuity. There are no studies that indicate – and no reason to believe – that access to emergency contraception increases the likelihood of having sex, or of having sex with multiple partners. What access to emergency contraception does do is decrease the likelihood of unintended pregnancy. In spite of it’s proven safety and efficacy record, the population least likely to have a gynecologist, insurance, the ability to get a prescription medication quickly, and for whom an unplanned pregnancy would be the most catastrophic, was denied easy access and had the most barriers to prevention.

Others made the argument that the directions would be too difficult for a young teen to understand. Really? The same 15-year-old that has 12 tabs open on their web browser while writing a blog and doing their homework is not going to figure out how to take a pill correctly? (Plan B One-Step requires taking only one pill.)

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, called Judge Koman’s decision “an important step forward” because it “will eliminate some of the biggest barriers and hurdles that women face in getting emergency contraception.” I couldn’t agree more, and I applaud Judge Korman, and the Obama administration’s decision in doing the right thing.

There is one obstacle. Even though the teen need not face a potentially judgmental pharmacist since the product will now be available on the shelf, the teen must prove their age. The majority of 15-year-olds cannot whip out a driver’s license. So, in addition to talking to your teen about safe sex and what to do if the condom fails, it’s also a good idea to give your kid a copy of their birth certificate – just in case.