Will Shift on Morning-After Pill Increase Availability in Schools?

By Nirvi Shah — May 01, 2013 2 min read
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Does the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision Tuesday to allow the morning-after pill to be sold to 15-year-olds without a prescription mean it will be available at more schools?

The FDA said Tuesday that instead of requiring women younger than 17 to have a prescription to buy the pill, which prevents pregnancy and is housed behind pharmacy counters, it will be available over-the-counter for those 15 and older, as long as teenagers have proof of their age.

The Plan B One-Step pill is emergency contraception that reduces the possibility of pregnancy following unprotected sex—if another form of birth control such as a condom wasn’t used or failed. It’s most effective if taken immediately or within three days after unprotected sex.

“The data reviewed by the agency demonstrated that women 15 years of age and older were able to understand how Plan B One-Step works, how to use it properly, and that it does not prevent the transmission of a sexually transmitted disease,” FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg said.

At least a few school districts already stock the pill in school-based health centers and clinics. A little-known New York City public schools plan to distribute the pill to girls as young as 14 came under fire last fall. From the Associated Press:

New York’s program was phased in at health clinics at about 40 schools in the 1-million-student school system starting about four years ago. Since January 2011, it has expanded to 13 additional schools that don’t have clinics. The little-known program was [first] reported by the New York Post. Nurse practitioners or physicians dispense the pills, and parents can sign an opt-out form preventing their daughters from taking part. Only about 1 to 2 percent of parents have opted out, according to the city Health Department. The program is seen as a way to reduce a startling number: More than 7,000 New York City girls ages 15 to 17 get pregnant each year. More than two-thirds of those pregnancies end in abortions. “We are committed to trying new approaches ... to improve a situation that can have lifelong consequences,” the [New York City] Health Department said in a statement.

The FDA decision comes in the midst of ongoing litigation about whether there should be any age restrictions on access to the pill at all and is a reversal from the Obama administration’s position from less than two years ago.

Back then, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius noted that “the average age of the onset of menstruation for girls in the United States is 12.4 years. However, about 10 percent of girls are physically capable of bearing children by 11.1 years of age. It is common knowledge that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age. If the application were approved, the product would be available, without prescription, for all girls of reproductive age.”

In April, however, a federal judge in New York ordered the FDA to grant a 2001 petition to allow over-the-counter access to Plan B for women of all ages and/or make Plan B One-Step available without age or point-of-sale restrictions. The FDA said its decision on giving 15-year-olds unfettered access to the pill was in the works before the judge’s ruling.

The group that filed the petition wasn’t impressed by the FDA’s decision.

Lowering the age limit “may reduce delays for some young women but it does nothing to address the significant barriers that far too many women of all ages will still find if they arrive at the drugstore without identification,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, told The Washington Post.

The FDA said its decision only applies to the Plan B One-Step form of emergency contraception. Two others, the two-dose Plan B and ella, aren’t affected. Plan B still requires a prescription for women younger than 17. Ella is a prescription-only product.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.