Plans B Damned: The Quest for Emergency Contraception

Nikol Hasler

There are many reasons a woman might need the morning after pill, emergency contraception, Plan B. But for a drug that's over-the-counter, EC can be surprisingly hard to obtain. After encouraging teen girls to use EC when necessary, Midwest Teen Sex Show host Nikol Hasler decided to see just how accessible it is. The answer: not very.

The condom broke, came off, or in some other way malfunctioned. He was behind me and I couldn’t tell he wasn’t using one. We just got carried away and he didn’t pull out in time. I forgot to take my birth control. I had an appointment to get on the pill, but we didn’t wait.

There are a whole slew of reasons a woman might find herself in need of a morning after pill; emergency contraception; Plan B. But unless you have Plan B already waiting in your medicine cabinet, it is highly unlikely you’ll get your hands on a morning-after pill the morning after.

I am a middle class 29 year old mother of three, living in the Midwest, who sees a physician regularly. I have kept up on the news about Plan B’s availability over the counter at major drug stores. In my line of work, I regularly tell teens and young adults to always use protection, and tell girls of reproductive age who aren’t so into the whole reproduction thing that they should be on birth control.

I encouraged young women and men to seek Plan B if their contraceptive method failed or they forgot to use contraception, telling them it was easy to obtain. But was it?

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On a Tuesday morning at 7 a.m., I set out to discover just how easy it would be for me to get my hands on some emergency contraception. It all started with a web search.

Google: Plan B, Wisconsin, Over the Counter

My Internet search lead me to the Plan B website, which was helpful in telling me how the medication worked and what to expect after taking the two twelve-hour staggered doses of the hormone used in birth control pills at a super concentrated dose. When it came to where I could find the medication, I expected a zip code look up function. When I saw that no such function existed, I started to call the local pharmacies.

The sweet sounding girl who answered the phone, didn’t know what the hell I was talking about, and then ran off to ask the pharmacist, told me that I needed to get a prescription from my doctor. Given that I had just read that Plan B was available over-the-counter, this seemed strange to me, but given that this pharmacy indubitably deals with such requests frequently, I took the girl’s word for it. I called my primary physician’s office.

"Does Dr. M have any openings today?"

"Why, yes, he sure does," responds the receptionist. "And your name? Okay, Nikol, what do you need to see him for today?"

"Contraception. Birth Control. It is urgent that I see him today."

"Hmm. Will you hold please? I don’t think we… I mean, appointments are…"

So I hold. I listen to a soothing bit of elevator music and a woman talking about proper nutrition. Just as I am really getting into it and considering if my calcium supplement is really that great, the receptionist breaks back in.

"Sorry, Nikol. We don’t have openings for that purpose today. I can get you in to see him in, oh, two weeks."

"I’d be happy to do that, but for right now I need to know if he can call in a prescription for Plan B for me."

"What’s Plan B?"

"Emergency contraception."

A moment passes where I hear her take this in. It sounds as if she may have breathed in a bit of potato chip. There is some coughing, but not the hearty, openly hacking kind. I am wondering why she is eating potato chips so early in the morning, and thinking of referring her to the hold message so she can better understand the importance of a proper breakfast. Then I realize she is making that noise due to mental discomfort.

"Ohhh. Oh. Oh, well then I will get this message to him right away. Yes, right away."

She seems lost, so I think for her.

"Do you need to know which pharmacy to call and the best number to reach me at? And should we go ahead and schedule that follow up so I don’t have to bother you with this call again?"

"You still want to?"

I am silent. Does she think I am strictly an emergency kind of woman? Does she think I wanted to just give her a jingle every time I had a semen mishap? Perhaps she and I will get familiar with this process. I can imagine dialing her up. "Hey, Janine. It’s me. You know who, silly! Yes, it is that time of month again. Oh, stop it. Stop it! You’d love this one. A real cutey."

We schedule the appointment and I hang up to ponder how I would be feeling if I were really worried about getting knocked up. I wait for the call letting me know that the prescription has been called in. When the return call comes, it’s not the receptionist but a prerecorded message: "Please call me back. I see here in my notes that you have an appointment but want a Plan B."

I call back and hold hold hold only to be told that they are really busy today and will call back. This time I decide that I will use my wait time to contact the local Planned Parenthood. I am surprised to find that there is one very near my house.

Planned Parenthood sends me into into button pressing limbo. When I press "2" as indicated, that recorded voice tells me I have selected an invalid entry. When I press "0" for a person, I am directed into voice mail. I call back and restart my button pressing.

Once I reach a real person things look promising. All I have to do is come in with a photo i.d. proving that I am over 18 and fill out a bunch of paperwork; then they will give me the drug and tell me how to use it. Without my prompting, the woman on the phone talks about the cost.

"We can fund some of the cost, so it is going to cost between twenty five and forty dollars. You need to bring in the past two months’ pay stubs and proof that you were born in Wisconsin."

"What if I am under 18? Not that I am, I was just wondering."

"Well, you would need a prescription."

Meanwhile, a nurse from my doctors’s office calls back and tells me she is confused. A note informed her that I have made an appointment, but need Plan B. Given her response, I assume the desk clerk has not capitalized Plan or B.

"So, what is your plan b?" she asks me.

"No. I need Plan B. A prescription."

"A prescription for what?"

"Plan B."

"What is that plan?"

Can we say Abbott and Costello meets tragic lack of education regarding this drug?

"Emergency contraception. It is called Plan B. I called the pharmacy and they said I need a prescription."

"Oh. Wait. Did you have unprotected sex?"

"Well, er, see. There was a bit of a catastrophe. And I need the prescription."

I feel ashamed as she asks me if I usually have unprotected sex and whether I considered using birth control. That shame is taken over by my amusement at having used the word catastrophe. Being a visually imaginative person, I am seeing a typhoon of semen ripping its way through a island-like vaginal cavity, destroying everything in its path.

"Obviously I don’t want to have this conversation ever again. I made an appointment to talk to Dr. M about birth control."

"Okay. Well, I need to talk to him about this."

"Yes, you would," I respond. "He would need to be the one writing the scrip."

My shame returns. Here I am, a grown woman asking for birth control that I don’t even really need, yet I cannot shake this feeling that I am the town harlot in a back alley looking for the seedy looking fellow with a rusty coat hanger. She may have been right to imply that grown people should know how to avoid this situation in the first place, but perhaps a bit more professionalism and less judgment in her tone would have been appropriate.

Finally the nurse calls again, to inform me that I can get Plan B over the counter. When I tell her that the pharmacy told me otherwise, she says that some pharmacies refuse to fill the prescription or to offer it over the counter based on their moral beliefs.

I call the Pharmacy #1 again. I tell them that I don’t need a prescription and they tell me that I do. I mention that I am over eighteen and they tell me that they don’t have any in stock.

I have more luck at the second pharmacy I call, but the salesclerk tells me they only have one more in stock, so I should come in soon. What kind of strange sales pitch is that? Come in quick, folks, all the emergency contraception is flying off the shelves this summer! I can hear "Time of the Season" running behind that ad.

I go to the closest pharmacy to the grocery store because I need to pick up some fresh basil. While waiting in line I think of all of the people also there, waiting on their various medications, and I wonder how many of them have even heard of Plan B, and, of those who have, how many realize that it isn’t an abortion pill.

When the fresh, bright-faced Midwestern college student calls me to the register, I say confidently, "I am here to pick up Plan B."

She moves to her computer habitually asking, "And how do you spell the last name?"

"No. I need Plan B. Over the counter."

Bless her, too, because when the realization hits her about what I need she seems almost proud to get it for me. She tells me she likes my hand bag and tries not to linger on the guy I am there with — who is purposefully checking out the personal lubrication and condom area.

Forty-three dollars and change, and an i.d. check later, I am told to move to the side so the pharmacist can discuss the medication with me.

"Have you ever taken this before?" The pharmacist turns to me, but focuses on something that I assume is fascinating just beyond my head. I turn to look at it, too, but I guess I don’t find local analgesics as fascinating as this dude.

The best bit of information he gives me is that if I should happen to vomit within 20 minutes of taking the first pill, I should take the second right away. Oh, and he adds, "This isn’t to be used for the, uh, whole time or anything."

I am officially feeling ashamed at this point. I didn’t know that was possible for me, but something about the tone of the pharmacist’s voice as he speaks down to me like I am some sort of idiot who cannot even manage to use protection just brings it home. How must other women feel as the pharmacists of the world give them the stink eye and speak really slowly to them?

When my boyfriend, who has gracefully come along with me on this adventure, approaches holding a bottle of lube, he asks loud enough for anyone nearby to hear how much my medication cost.

"It was $43.00," I tell him, and he offers to pay half, putting his bottle of lube on the counter for purchase. I love him a little just then. He’s helped bring me back to how very natural this process ought to be.

"If you have any problems at all, you can call us," the pharmacist offers. I give him a Fonz style double thumbs up and head to the door, wondering how the fuck people make it through these situations without hating themselves.

***

How much did I even know about Plan B before I spent a day trying to procure some? Very little. I had breezed through a few internet forums about how it works, but for some reason my head was quite stuck in thinking of it as a mini-abortion. All of the hubbub in the media about this controversial new form of contraception had made me believe that this little box of two super charged hormonal pills was something it was not. Beyond that, I thought purchasing it would be as easy as buying smokes was back when I was sixteen.

The most important thing I have learned because of my work with Midwest Teen Sex Show has had very little to do with sex or even teen sexuality itself. The most prominent among my findings is my realization that, even in knowing more than the average American consumer about sex, I don’t know a goddam thing.

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