WHEN WAL-MART announced earlier this month that it would not carry a new pregnancy prevention pill, it unwittingly did women a great service.
The retailing giant spotlighted one of the best-kept secrets in reproductive health.
For more than a generation, doctors knew what most women did not -- that two birth control pills, taken within three days of sex and then again 12 hours later, could prevent pregnancy.
Not terminate pregnancy. Prevent it.
Doctors would tell women patients who called in a panic, but they did not often volunteer it as part of routine contraceptive advice.
Meanwhile, it has long been administered to victims of rape or incest, and it was an open secret on college campuses.
If a coed forgot to take her pills, or if the condom broke or if her diaphragm slipped or if sex was involuntary, the campus clinic would prescribe a disc of birth control pills and tell her to take two now, two more in 12 hours and throw the rest away.
The pills delayed ovulation, prevented fertilization, or prevented implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall, the medical definition of pregnancy.
The Food and Drug Administration suggested that drug companies package birth control pills this way -- as post-coital contraceptives. But the invitation was not met with enthusiasm for perhaps the same reason that doctors were reluctant to routinely discuss this with their patients.
Why ask for trouble?
But Gynetics president and founder Rod Mackenzie was persuaded, and his company has produced Preven, the first FDA-approved emergency contraceptive kit. It includes four birth control pills and a pregnancy test, because this won't work if you are pregnant from a previous encounter.
Preven is not to be confused with RU-486, which can be used during the first seven weeks of pregnancy to induce an abortion.
But up steps Wal-Mart, anyway. The company, which has pulled products it thought would offend its small-town, conservative clientele, announced that it will not carry the drug in any of its 2,450 stores.
"This was not a moral decision," said Wal-Mart spokesman Jessica Moser. "It was a bottom-line business decision."
It is hard to believe the company decided not to carry the product because it didn't think anyone would buy it. And it is unfortunate for women in rural areas, where Wal-Mart is a dominant force on the retail landscape.
"The real problem is time," said Mackenzie. "Wal-Mart will direct customers to another retailer, but it adds time. With each 24 hours, the product is less effective."
Wal-Mart's refusal to carry this long-overdue product, though, serves a purpose if it puts a spotlight on Preven and the fact that a woman is not helpless if her contraceptive fails her or if she has unprotected sex.
This is a product women must know about. If not for themselves, then for their daughters.
More than 70 percent of teen girls say their first sexual experience "just happened," and most of them say they were unprotected. A girl can prevent a pregnancy if she reacts quickly because, for at least 72 hours, she will not test positive on a pregnancy test.
If she chooses to use Preven, she does not have to wait to find out if she faces a much more unhappy choice.