In a huge victory for science and women’s rights, Judge Edward Kormen ruled on Friday that it’s time to lift restrictions on the sale of levonorgestrol-based emergency contraception like Plan B. The decision marks a huge landmark in the ongoing wrangling over the access to emergency contraceptives and the war on women’s rights in the United States; for the first time, women and teens will be able to enter a pharmacy and buy emergency birth control over the counter without a prescription.
The battle really started to get hot in 2011, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it planned to allow unrestricted sales of emergency birth control based on the scientific evidence. The agency found that there were no compelling reasons to limit access, and that there were in fact numerous reasons to make it easier to get, not least of which is that the pill needs to be taken within a very narrow time window, making any potential barrier a serious problem.
However, special interests and politics started entering the race, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s plans, triggering a lawsuit from women’s rights groups. They argued that her decision imperiled the health of women and girls, and was clearly tainted by political factors; birth control is a hot potato in the United States, and controversy swirls around emergency contraception, which some political conservatives think is an abortifacient.
In fact, emergency contraception works almost entirely by preventing ovulation, which means egg and sperm never meet. Even under the most strict definition of “pregnancy” used by conservatives, some of whom seem to believe that a fertilized egg that hasn’t even implanted yet is morally equivalent to an actual living baby, a nonfertilized egg floating around in the uterus is not a pregnancy. When taken at the right time, emergency contraception ensures that egg and sperm stay firmly separated, thus ensuring that a pregnancy never happens.
While researchers originally theorized that emergency contraception might also interfere with the uterine lining to prevent implantation, further research has disproved that claim. A recent study in Contraception, for example, demonstrated that emergency contraception was only effective when taken before fertilization. In other words, even if you believe fertilized egg=baby, EC isn’t an abortifacient, because if the egg is fertilized, it’s already too late. (However, only 50% of fertilized eggs even manage to implant, and fewer still make it through the early weeks of pregnancy.)
With 2012 marking unprecedented attacks on women’s rights when it came to accessing birth control, this court case was of particular interest to a number of activists who thought it might be a sign for the direction of the political winds. Judge Kormen’s decision was decisive, and it contained some important comments. He didn’t just rule that EC should be available to all women OTC without a prescription: he also indicted the role of politics in science and medicine.
“The FDA bowed to political pressure emanating from the White House and departed from agency policy,” he wrote in the decision. He also took on the scaremongering used to suggest that OTC availability of emergency contraception would lead to rampant pediatric abuse: “the invocation of the adverse effect of Plan B on 11-year-olds is an excuse to deprive the overwhelming majority of women of their right to obtain contraceptives without unjustified and burdensome restrictions.”
His decisive statement was great news, but the battle is not over, women’s rights groups warn. Cost still remains an issue, and there is a concern that costs for emergency contraception may spike in response to the ruling, making it difficult for low-income women and teens to access it. Furthermore, programs like Medicaid might balk at paying for emergency contraception once it goes on sale over the counter, which would be a serious burden to women relying on these programs to help them pay for health care.
Now more than ever, it’s important to defend the right to access safe, affordable birth control.
Thanks to all our wonderful Care2 members who have signed several petitions on this issue, including this one with more than 13,000 signatures, which helped to make this a success for women.
Photo credit: S. MiRK