On June 10, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that the FDA is going to comply with a federal judge’s order this spring and approve efforts to make Plan-B One-Step emergency contraception available without any age or point-of-sale restrictions. With this recent announcement and the judge’s order back in April, there have been many myths and misunderstandings regarding the benefits and safety of emergency contraception.
As an OBGYN physician, I know how important this access to emergency contraception is to women of all ages who are at risk of unintended pregnancy.
If this access is to be preserved, it is critical that we base our medical and policy decisions on scientifically accurate information.
Making emergency contraception accessible to all women regardless of age or income is good public health. About half of the nearly 7 million pregnancies in the United States each year are unintended, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
This is one of the highest rates among developed countries — and it’s particularly high among low-income people who lack access to health care and other resources. This decision lifts barriers and increases access.
Emergency contraception works if taken within five days of unprotected sex, so timely access is crucial.
Previous age and point-of-sale restrictions created delays in access when pharmacy windows are closed, a common barrier for many women living in rural South Carolina.
The health of young women in South Carolina benefits from timely access to birth control that might prevent pregnancy, not delays at the pharmacy counter and unnecessary red tape.
Additionally, birth control, including emergency contraception, helps improve maternal and infant health. When women plan their pregnancies, they are far more likely to access prenatal care, ultimately improving their own health and the health of their children. Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) lists no medical condition for which the risks of emergency contraceptive pills could outweigh the benefits.
Emergency contraception is a safe and effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy. Emergency contraception pills, like Plan B, differ from most birth control pills in a very important way — they only have the progestin hormone and no estrogen.
The WHO and women’s health experts concur that progestin only methods do not increase risk of blood clots. Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as well as experts on emergency contraception have concluded that progestin-only emergency contraception pills, like Plan B, may be preferable to combined hormone EC and birth control pills containing estrogen in women with a history of blood clots, stroke, migraine, or who smoke.
Progestin-only emergency contraception, like Plan B, is the only type that is now available prescription-free to women without an age restriction.
Emergency contraception is not the abortion pill, which is also known as mifepristone or RU-486. Progestin-only emergency contraception works by postponing ovulation, which prevents sperm from coming in contact with and fertilizing an egg.
Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy and will not work once a woman is pregnant. In fact, access to emergency contraception reduces the need for abortion by preventing unintended pregnancy in the first place.
Long-standing scientific research and studies have proven that teens are as likely as adults to use emergency contraception correctly understanding that it is not intended for ongoing, regular use.
Furthermore, we know that prevention does not promote promiscuity. Research shows that rates of unprotected sex or sexual activity in general do not increase among young people because they have easier access to emergency contraception.
I applaud the FDA on this historic decision. Lifting the age restrictions on over-the-counter emergency contraception is a significant and long-overdue step forward for women’s health that will benefit women of all ages.
This ruling is good health policy, good science, and good sense!
Angela Dempsey, M.D., MPH, is assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at MUSC.