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Morning After Pill Now More Accessible

November 30, 2008

A survey of pharmacies in three large U.S. cities showed women have easier and quicker access to the morning after pill since the Food and Drug Administration ruled the medication could be sold to adults without a prescription.

The FDA approved “behind the counter” status for plan B, in 2006, meaning that people aged 18 and older can buy the emergency contraceptive over the counter, while younger people need a prescription from a doctor.  This medication consists of a high dose of progesterone, and works by preventing the ovaries from releasing an egg.  This pill is unlike the “abortion pill”, which affects an existing pregnancy.

“The sooner you take it the more effective it is, which is why availability is so important,” Dr. Rebekah E. Gee of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, the lead researcher on the study, told Reuters Health. She added that Plan B works best if taken within 24 hours of unprotected sex.

Gee and her colleagues surveyed pharmacies in Atlanta, Boston, and Philadelphia in 2005 and 2007.  The first round of the survey included 1,087 pharmacies, while the second included 795.

Gee and her team found, in 2005, that 23 percent of pharmacies reported being unable to dispense Plan B within 24 hours. A couple of years later, that number was down to only 8 percent.  The number of pharmacists surveyed who said they would refuse to dispense the drug was down from 4 percent to 2 percent.

In Atlanta, the rate of refusal was 9 percent in 2005 and fell to 2 percent in 2007.  The percentage of pharmacies that were unable to dispense the drug within 24 hours fell from 35 percent to 14 percent.

In Philadelphia, the percentage of pharmacies reporting being unable to dispense the drug fell from 23 percent to 10 percent, while refusal rates were at 3 percent but in 2007 went up to 4 percent.

In Boston, rates of being unable to dispense Plan B or refusing to do so, were low at both time points.

Gee noted that Plan B is extremely safe, with nausea being the most common side effect. She believes it should be available without a prescription to younger people as well. 

“There’s no evidence that use of Plan B leads to more intercourse or riskier behavior, even though some of its opponents have claimed that,” she added. “The data definitely show that that’s not true.”

The U.S. ranks the highest in unplanned pregnancies in the industrial world. Studies show 1 in 3 U.S. women will have an abortion.  Plan B does not reduce rates of unplanned pregnancy in the population at large.  Gee and her colleagues wrote, “Only through increased access to more effective methods of contraception and by empowering women to be educated about their reproductive health will we likely see a change in unintended pregnancy rates.”

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