Despite hints that the FDA was considering making Plan B, also known as the “morning-after pill,” available to young women under the age of 17 without a prescription, a surprise block from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has barred access without a physician’s consent. Her reasoning? That the information presented by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Plan B’s maker, didn’t sufficiently prove that teenage girls would be able to understand how to take the drug.
Yes, the proven-safe pregnancy-preventing hormonal drug, which an FDA advisory committee had agreed was unnecessarily being regulated, and which comes in a single dose, might be too confusing and difficult for young women to self-prescribe, Sebelius reasoned, pointing to studies commissioned by the company, which she described as “insufficient.”
Just how poor was the comprehension of young women? According to Teva’s studies, ”between 72% and 96%” could “understand the proposed Plan B package label well enough to use the drug safely and effectively on their own.” That’s as many as 38% who might not understand! But as few as 4%! Of course, plenty of adults don’t understand their over-the-counter drugs, either–but this is a sexual health drug we’re discussing, so it’s different, right?
Plan B–which is often incorrectly conflated with the more-controversial “abortion pill” but is not even remotely the same thing– is currently available to those over the age of 17 at pharmaceutical counters (but not on the shelves), and at health clinics, like Planned Parenthood. When taken up to 72 hours after a sexual encounter, it is highly effective at reducing the rate of pregnancy. It, like all hormonal contraceptive, offers no protection against STIs.
Sebelius’s decision to continue to limit access to Plan B for young women is upsetting for a number of reasons–and not just that her rationale basically states that girls who are old enough to take the SAT aren’t smart enough to read a label. The rhetoric surrounding Plan B and its generic counterparts has been so mired in damaging, negative language (that making it available would make girls less responsible, that it would make older men more likely to take advantage of them, that this form of birth control is basically like abortion and not prevention), that the drug itself, which is essentially just a high dose of oral contraception, has become a charged subject. Which is sad, because many of the young women who might want it are likely trying to do the smart thing by preventing pregnancy after the fact.
Of course, the simple answer for how to better inform young women as to how to use Plan B (and various other forms of birth control which many teenagers use incorrectly) would be to offer more comprehensive sexual education, which includes the role of hormones in pregnancy. But as long as there are those who vocally believe that making hormonal contraception and preventative measures like Plan B available allows girls to be more sexually promiscuous, that’s unlikely to be the case.
Image: Plan B