On Monday, March 23, a U.S.
District Court found that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bowed to political
pressure from the
Bush administration in its 2006 decision to limit access to emergency
contraception without prescription to women aged 18 and older. The court
ordered the FDA to expand over-the-counter access to 17-year-olds within
30 days. It further ordered the FDA to reconsider the application to
eliminate all age restrictions to over-the-counter access to emergency
contraception, which is sometimes called Plan B or the "morning-after
The ruling comes just two days
before the eighth anniversary of the Back Up Your Birth Control Day
of Action, a day devoted to increasing awareness of and access to emergency
contraception. While emergency contraception can help prevent unintended
pregnancy when taken up to 120 hours after unprotected sex, it is most
effective the sooner it is taken. Eliminating the requirement of a prescription
for women younger than 18 will reduce delays in obtaining the method – thereby
helping to reduce young women’s risk of an unintended pregnancy.
The typical American woman
faces a daunting challenge: Given that she wants two children, she spends
only a few years trying to become or being pregnant, but about three
decades trying to avoid pregnancy. Recent
Guttmacher research documents
the difficulty women confront in using contraception consistently and
correctly over a lifetime. Finding the "right" contraceptive method
is not a one-time decision – rather, women make a series of choices
in response to their changing life circumstances and contraceptive needs.
The study found that life changes,
such as the beginning or end of a relationship, a job loss or change,
moving to a new home or a personal crisis, can contribute to lapses
in contraceptive use,
increasing the risk of unprotected sex. That’s why emergency contraception,
a back-up birth control method, can play a key role in helping women
ensure that a contraceptive lapse or failure does not lead to unintended
pregnancy. Health care providers are especially well positioned
to counsel women about the potential impact of life events on their
contraceptive use. They can also help women prepare for those transitions,
as well as for potential method failures (like condoms breaking during
sex) by providing emergency contraception to keep at hand in case it
is needed and by educating them about its benefits and availability.
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Continued efforts to raise
public awareness about emergency contraception are essential and should
include debunking myths about the method. Many women and men still do
not know that emergency contraception exists or are confused about how
the method works. Emergency contraception contains the same hormones
that are found in ordinary birth control pills. It will not in any way
disrupt an established pregnancy. And it is not to be confused with
mifepristone, sometimes called RU-486, a drug used to terminate a pregnancy
that is only available and administered at clinics or doctor’s offices.
Much still remains to be done
to help women and their partners improve their contraceptive use overall.
The more we can identify and remove barriers to consistent use-while
ensuring that people know about and have access to a back-up method
like emergency contraception-the better prepared women will be to
avoid unintended pregnancies and plan for the children they want, when
they want them.
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