Last week, federal judge Edward R. Korman ruled that the government should remove age restrictions from over-the-counter sales of Plan B, also known as "the morning after pill." The administration is appealing Korman's ruling against the original age restriction that was about to take effect -- that only those 17-years-old and older can buy the pill. Judge Korman made his decision because the pill causes no serious side effects, does not induce abortions, is one of the safest over-the counter drugs sold, and is freely available in 63 other countries, and because Plan B has been available in drugstores since 1999 but only if a woman had a doctor's prescription.
Since the drug is most effective when taken within 24 hours after intercourse, most women couldn't get a prescription from their doctors and make it to the drugstore in time to fill their prescriptions. Amanda Hess, in an article in Slate, says, "Imagine scheduling an appointment with a doctor every time you realized you needed a condom. Women who weren't able to secure a doctor's visit and drugstore run before sperm reached egg were still looking at Plan C: abortion."
The debate about lifting the age restrictions has become primarily a moral one. No one wants to think about 12 and 13 year old girls taking a drug to prevent pregnancy. No one wants to think about sexually active 12- and 13-year-olds. We would much rather not think about teenage girls being abducted and being sexually abused by their kidnapper for 10 years or human trafficking where girls as young as nine are used for sex. But we should be thinking about all of those.
That the national teen birth rate is declining is good news but shouldn't 15- and 16 year-olds be allowed to prevent a pregnancy as well as those who are 17-years-old? The Berkshires has one of the highest pregnancy rates in the state although it, too, has been declining. Making Plan B available to women and girls of all ages might be all we need to lower that birth rate even further.
The argument against removing age restrictions for purchase of the drug is one I can relate to -- parents deserve to have some say in what their daughters can purchase at the drugstore. But many parents these days don't say enough. Unlike those who think making a contraceptive pill available to girls is handing them a license to be promiscuous, I don't believe the pill will change much about their behavior. The idea that a 13-year-old girl who is coerced or agrees to have sex can avoid pregnancy by taking emergency contraception is one that seems absolutely right.
A Los Angeles Times article by Sandy Banks quoted Dr. Tracey Wilkinson, a pediatrician who "thinks it's a good idea to equip teenagers with Plan B." Wilkinson adds, "Nobody wants these young children to be having sex. But by the time they're 17, over half of adolescents are sexually active." Banks shared some of her ambivalence -- "instead of empowering women, we might be putting more pressure on girls, taking away another reason in this sex-saturated culture" for them to say no to sex, or that they might have another reason not to talk to their parents about sex. But Wilkinson says research shows that more than 60 percent of women only use the drug once in their lives.
In a perfect world, we would never need to make emergency contraceptive available to girls because parents and daughters would talk easily and thoughtfully about sex and pregnancy, and politics would not ever be about women's reproductive rights. In the Slate article, Hess states "one of the more interesting lessons of the 14-year fight over Plan B is how seamlessly political obstruction translated from a conservative administration to an ostensibly progressive one -- President Bush's move (to enact an age limit on the pill for political reasons) appealed to his base and Obama's move (to block the removal of age limits) appealed to Bush's base, too."
Hess quotes Stephanie Sequin, a plaintiff in the case to make science take precedence over politics. "This decision to grant immediate access to the Morning-After Pill is a huge step forward in the fight for women and girls to be able to control the course of their lives."
In a perfect world, this would have happened 14 years ago.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.