Plan B: A Win For Women’s Reproductive Rights

Gaining access to contraception is a battle women have been fighting for years. The 1950s and 1960s was the age of the pill with Margaret Sanger at the forefront of the American women’s movement. Now, our attention is on the morning-after pill. Also know as Plan B, the morning-after pill was first approved for prescription sale only in 1999. Since the early 2000’s groups like the Center for Reproductive Rights have made it their priority to change Plan B from a prescription drug to an over-the-counter drug.

Political motivations, however, have kept the drug restricted, and hence kept women from accessing it in the inherently short time frame when it is effective. Politicians argue that Plan B is unsafe to potential young users but this claim does not hold up when under scientific scrutiny. Research has shown Plan B is a safe and effective way to prevent unintended pregnancies and young teens are as likely to use it properly as are adults. There is no incentive for young teens to abuse Plan B, unlike the other drugs that have some how slipped through the politicians agendas like cough syrup and diet pills. 

In 2006, women won a small victory, when the courts approved Plan B to be sold without prescription to those over the age of 18. This law was changed to individuals over the age of 17 three years later, after the U.S. District Judge Korman in Brooklyn ruled the FDA acted without good faith and without scientific grounds in denying minors the morning-after pill.

But 17 year olds were still at a disadvantage. A study by Boston University found that 20% of 17 year olds were incorrectly denied Plan B by pharmacists because of their age. This statistic rose to 24% when looking at only low income areas where women are more in need of the medication. What’s more concerning, only 57% of pharmacists in the study could accurately state the legal age to buy Plan B when asked by these women. Reproductive health groups continued to fight for full, over-the-counter access to Plan B to rid women of this discrimination and increase access.

However, even with a liberal president they found extreme push back. In February 2011 Teva, the maker of Plan B applied for full over-the-counter approval with no age restriction. The FDA approved the sale but was blocked by the Health and Human Services who overruled the FDA’s decision, with the support of President Obama, who stated, “as the father of two daughters,” the government should use “common sense when deciding how drugs should be distributed”. Yet, the fight continued, originally approved on April 30 for individuals over the age of 15, the FDA revised this and on June 20, the FDA finally announced that the pill could be on the shelf alongside condoms and other birth control methods without age restriction. Teva will have exclusive rights to over-the-counter sales for the next three years because of their FDA application, while other companies will abide by previous laws, selling behind-the-counter, and with prescription if under the age of 17.

After a long battle, women have come one step closer to full reproductive rights. Pregnancies among U.S. teens have been decreasing, but there are still 750,000 pregnancies every year for 15-to-19 year olds in the U.S. Hopefully we will see that number decrease.

However, many are adamant in reversing Teva’s victory. For instance, the Oklahoma Senate immediately attempted to pass a law that replaced the 17 and older law in August. Luckily, a judge blocked this bill, a good sign that access for all ages is here to stay.   

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Elaine Jaworski

Pre-med student studying Policy Analysis and Management with a focus in Health Care at Cornell University.

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