The Politics Of Plan B

Our View: Morning-after Pill For Teens Is Safe, But No Substitute For Doctor's Care

April 24, 2009

The federal Food and Drug Administration's decision Wednesday to widen access to Plan B, a morning-after contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse, was a long-overdue triumph of science over politics.

For years, the Bush administration resisted FDA approval of over-the-counter sale of the drug because of opposition from religious conservatives. Even after the over-the-counter ban was lifted in 2006, sales were limited to women 18 or older. That made little sense at a time when teen pregnancy rates were rising fastest among 15- to 17-year-olds. With the FDA's announcement this week, 17-year-olds will finally be able to purchase the drug without a prescription.

The debate over Plan B was never about whether the drug was effective or safe. As early as 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Society for Adolescent Medicine urged the FDA to make Plan B available to all women and sexually active adolescents, including girls as young as 14. "Excluding adolescents from having OTC access to Plan B sets a dangerous precedent for adolescent health," they wrote. "Sexually active adolescents should not have barriers to access reproductive health care."

But religious conservatives and anti-abortion groups argued the pill would encourage teens to engage in more unprotected sex and lead to an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. In fact, after several years of decline, there's been a small recent uptick in teen pregnancies in Maryland and nationally. But there's no evidence linking the increase to the availability of emergency contraceptives such as Plan B.

Baltimore's assistant commissioner for maternal and child health, Avril Melissa Houston, says reducing barriers to contraceptives for teens is good public policy, but it's no substitute for having a relationship with a physician or access to the kind of sustainable reproductive health care offered by city health clinics, which provide counseling as well as family planning services. Those are the kinds of efforts that will make a difference over the long term. There is no magic pill, Plan B or otherwise, that will make teen pregnancy disappear. But at least now officials can start looking again to science for answers, not politics.

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