Ten years ago the FDA approved Plan B emergency contraception (EC). Greeting this innovative and critical back-up method of birth control was an incredible amount of controversy, including ideologically-driven delays in over-the- counter approval, pharmacists refusing to dispense the medication and deliberate efforts by anti-choice advocates to confuse emergency contraception with the abortion pill.
This month, the FDA approved a single dose version of Plan B (named Plan B One-Step) and the reaction has been... Unremarkable. Is it possible that Plan B has finally become so commonplace that it no longer warrants debate? After all, while a loud ideological battle over the two tiny pills roiled the highest levels of government for over ten years, an amazing thing happened simultaneously: the women who needed it quietly began adding it to their medicine cabinets and for them there was no controversy at all.
Women of all ages and backgrounds across America recognized the importance of a safe, effective, backup method of birth control and started sharing the information with their friends. Together, they made Plan B the fastest growing women's health care brand.
It is, in fact, a wonder that the other side was able to manufacture controversy in the first place, considering that 98% of sexually active women use birth control at some point in their lives and EC is simply a higher dose of the same hormones found in birth control pills.
And yet, more work remains to be done around EC advocacy and awareness. Because -- while Plan B users indicate high levels of satisfaction (most say they would use the product again if necessary) -- nearly 40 percent of women 18-30 remain unaware of this valuable medication. In fact, many women are startled to learn that there is actually a window of time after sex but before pregnancy. (That's why emergency contraception works best within the first 24 hours after unprotected sex though it is still effective when taken within five days.)
How do we spread the word? We must :
- Invest in an educational awareness campaign to underscore the importance and time-sensitivity of this product and,
- Increase public funding and coverage for low-income women. We ask that Medicaid in all states cover this drug and that public health campaigns include information on its benefit as well.
Additionally, it is vital that the scientifically unfounded restriction on over the counter sales to women under 17 be lifted. Considering that the unintended pregnancy rate among teens remains alarmingly high -- and teens are often the ones with least access to medical care -- it is foolish to deprive them of ready access to this safe, effective method of birth control.
As EC becomes both easier to take, through innovations like Plan B One-Step, and more accessible via both the upcoming generic formula (which will be available only by prescription) and the FDA's decision to grant OTC access to Plan B for 17 year old women, heightened awareness is critical to increasing use of this safe, effective back up method of birth control.