Written by Tara Culp-Ressler
At the beginning of August, Plan B — the most common brand of the so-called “morning after pill” — finally hit pharmacy shelves, a victory for women’s health advocates who have been fighting for over-the-counter access for more than a decade. But even though emergency contraception is supposed to be out from behind the pharmacy counter, that doesn’t mean everyone is able to easily access it.
There’s still a lot of confusion swirling around emergency contraception, thanks largely in part to this year’s complicated legal battle that eventually led to the FDA’s decision to end age restrictions on over-the-counter Plan B sales.
“Because of political interference with Plan B, we have major confusion about who can purchase it and whether these products are safe,” Jessica Arons, the president of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, told Jezebel last week. “It feeds into histrionics.”
First of all, the anti-choice community continues to push the incorrect narrative that emergency contraception is an abortion-inducing pill. Now that Obamacare requires employer-based insurance plans to cover contraceptives, including Plan B, without charging a co-pay, conservatives across the country have filed legal challenges against the health law because they’re opposed to abortion. Despite that popular talking point, however, the morning after pill does not actually end a pregnancy. Plan B is also incredibly safe for women of all ages to use, even though public figures — including President Obama — have falsely suggested otherwise.
Aside from medical misconceptions about the contraceptive, moving Plan B out from behind the counter has not been without its own complications. Outside investigations have found that not all pharmacies may be stocking their shelves with Plan B yet. Some are still choosing to keep emergency contraception under lock and key because they’re worried that people might try to shoplift the expensive product — Plan B One-Step, which is manufactured by Teva Pharmaceuticals, generally costs between $40 and $50. That means that people who want to purchase the morning after pill may still have to ask a pharmacist about it, something that can make some customers feel too uncomfortable or give pharmacists an opportunity to turn them down.
Another point of confusion is the fact that the FDA currently has a “sweetheart arrangement” with Teva Pharmaceuticals when it comes to over-the-counter emergency contraception. Until 2016, Teva’s Plan B One-Step is the only type of emergency contraception that young women or men under the age of 17 are allowed to purchase. Other generic versions — which tend to be cheaper — still require older customers to show an ID to prove that they’re old enough to buy it. The cost barrier may prevent some of the people who need emergency contraception from being able to purchase it, whether or not it appears on their local pharmacy shelves.
And yet another issue may come in the form of state-level restrictions regarding this type of contraceptive. Abortion opponents are already pushing to restrict Plan B on the state level now that the FDA has made it available without age restrictions. In May, Oklahoma enacted a law that requires people under the age of 17 to obtain a prescription in order to purchase Plan B — a direct violation of the FDA’s current federal policy.
Women’s health advocates are currently fighting that law in court, pointing out that the state shouldn’t be allowed to deny Oklahoma women the same access to over-the-counter Plan B that women in every other state now have.
“At a time when the federal government has taken an historic step to make emergency contraception more available to millions of women across the country, these hostile politicians have chosen to stand in the way of progress and cast aside their state’s constitution to impose arbitrary barriers on safe and effective birth control,” Bebe Anderson, the director for the Center for Reproductive Rights’ legal program, said in a statement regarding the group’s lawsuit in Oklahoma.
As long as the facts surrounding Plan B remain complicated, some people will remain under the impression that they can’t safely use it, or they won’t be able to get it without a prescription. “A lot of confusion will continue to surround emergency contraception; that alone will create barriers for women of all ages,” Arons pointed out to Jezebel. “It’s an incredibly unfortunate byproduct of politics.” The Reproductive Health Technologies Project is tracking people’s experiences with Plan B, and encouraging Americans to fill out a form if they have any issues trying to purchase emergency contraception without a prescription.
On Monday morning, an Oklahoma Country district judge blocked the Plan B restriction from taking effect. Without legal action, that state law would have gone into effect on Thursday.
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