Plan B: Dismantling the Hoops

Plan B: Dismantling the Hoops

Plan B PillsMarch 25th marked the eighth annual Back Up Your Birth Control Day of Action, a day to “raise awareness about and increase access to emergency contraception (EC).” You can find a fact sheet about EC (also known as Plan B ® or the 'morning after pill') on the Back Up Your Birth Control website, which includes info like:
• EC is designed to help prevent pregnancy AFTER unprotected sex or the failure of other birth control methods.

• EC is a higher dosage of the same hormones found in many types of regular birth control pills.

• It can be taken within 5 days of unprotected sex or birth control failure but EC is most effective when taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex or the failure of other birth control methods. In the first 24 hours after intercourse, Plan B can prevent 95% of expected pregnancies.

• EC is NOT the “abortion pill” and will not terminate an existing pregnancy or cause birth defects if a woman takes it when she is already pregnant.
In the United States women eighteen and over can currently purchase Plan B pills without a prescription but earlier this week a federal judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration make EC available over the counter to women as young as 17.

The judge ruled that the FDA had “improperly bowed to political pressure from the Bush administration in 2006 when it set 18 as the age limit...The agency has 30 days to comply with the order, in which the judge also urged the agency to consider removing all restrictions on over-the-counter sales of Plan B.”

Back in 2006 the FDA had also ordered that Plan B be stocked behind pharmacy counters, in contrast to other over-the-counter contraceptives like condoms, in order to enforce the age restriction.

So this current ruling is excellent news for young American women! If you find yourself in need of emergency contraception, timing is crucial and women of any age shouldn't have to jump through hoops to prevent pregnancy when there's a product that will safely help them do that on the market.

In theory, over the counter access to Plan B is something that Canadians of all ages already have. Last May the National Association of Pharmacy Regulatory Authorities accepted a recommendation that Plan B be made available on drugstore shelves rather than behind the pharmacy counter, making Canada (with the exception of Quebec) the fifth country to allow emergency contraceptive pills to be sold as an over-the-counter product.

Unfortunately, the reality of EC access is different. Seven pharmacists I contacted within my Ontario town this past November all told me they kept Plan B pills behind the counter. This was also the case in drugstores I contacted in Brampton and Scarborough. In further researching this situation I found that while the Ontario College of Pharmacists follows the NAPRA policy, the College doesn't regulate the placement of products within a pharmacy. So while a pharmacist is now permitted to put Plan B on the general shelves along with Tylenol or mouthwash, they aren't obligated to. Which pretty much leaves us with the 2004 status quo here—which was when Plan B became available without a doctor's prescription and changed to behind the counter status.

Some Ontario pharmacists cite fear of theft as the big reason Plan B remains a behind the counter drug in all but name but I'm more concerned about people (especially young or vulnerable people) who may feel daunted at the thought of requesting emergency contraception from their pharmacist and therefore risk going without. I'm hoping that this new U.S. federal court ruling will inspire the States to get it right and do a better job of removing hoops to EC access than we've done up here so far.

I know that if, when writing I Know It's Over, buying Plan B pills had been as simple as dropping by Shoppers Drug Mart and tossing the pills into a basket along with a tube of toothpaste, the intelligent but frightened sixteen year old characters at the centre of my story would have done just that and I would've had to pen a very different novel.
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