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Controversy erupts over Plan B

Halie Johnson

When Plan B, the “morning-after” pill, received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 1999, it was described as a safe way to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. Five years later, the emergency contraceptive has become the center of a heated political and scientific debate while receiving support from the Mills community.

Despite its FDA approval, Plan B remains under intense scrutiny from the political and medical establishments. Barr Laboratories, the manufacturer of Plan B, has twice requested that the drug be made available without a prescription, which has fueled an intense two-year debate over the method of contraception and the moral issues surrounding mass distribution of the drug.

The FDA defines emergency contraception as products used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. They are not intended for routine use as a method of birth control but rather as a back-up plan in case of contraceptive failure, lack of birth control or sexual assault. Plan B is currently available by prescription and is the only FDA approved emergency contraceptive in the United States.

In May 2004, the FDA denied over-the-counter status for the drug on the grounds that there was not enough data supporting the use of Plan B for women under the age of 16. Barr Laboratories responded by resubmitting their request with an age restriction that would make Plan B available without a prescription only to women over the age of 17.

The FDA has indefinitely delayed its decision on the matter. In an official statement made in August 2005, the FDA commissioner based the delay on the “need to resolve policy and regulatory questions before we can reach a final decision on the underlying science being presented to us.”

The center of the debate rests on whether an age restriction will be enough to prevent misuse of the drug. Advocates for Plan B believe it must be made more readily available to women, while opponents view the drug as an abortion pill that may promote adolescent sexual activity.

Both the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals and Princeton University’s Office of Population Research endorse Plan B as a safer, more effective form of emergency contraception than its foreign counterparts. It reduces the chance of pregnancy by 89 percent and has fewer side effects.

According to the Plan B Web site, the drug prevents pregnancy in the same manner as birth control pills while using a greater dose of hormones. It prevents the release of an egg from the ovary in addition to blocking the union of sperm with egg. It may also impede the binding of a fertilized egg to the uterus. Plan B is not RU-486, the French abortion pill, and will not terminate an already established pregnancy.

Yet anti-abortion activists believe Plan B destroys life by disrupting the implantation of fertilized eggs to the uterus. According to CBS News, Dr. David Hager, an anti-abortion gynecologist appointed by the Bush administration to serve on the 2004 FDA Advisory board reviewing Plan B, opposed changing the status of the drug on the grounds that it would promote risky sexual behavior in teens and increase their exposure to disease.

Junior Erika Montoya shares similar concerns. She said her experience with the drug led her to believe that women may start using Plan B as their primary form of contraception should it become readily available. “Plan B did not prevent my pregnancy, probably because I took it as an easy way out of birth control,” she said. “I would worry that women would consider Plan B as a regular method of birth control [and] that there would be many unwanted pregnancies.”

Yet advocates for the drug say there is little basis for Hager or Montoya’s concerns. Dr. Susan Wood, former FDA director of the Office of Women’s Health, said in a recent CBS News report that she and her fellow FDA scientists believe Plan B is a safe and necessary female contraceptive. “The only connection Plan B has with abortion is that it can prevent them by preventing an unintended pregnancy,” she said.

Junior Kim Swanberg agreed. She believes most of the hesitation in approving the drug is due to individuals confusing it with an abortion pill. “If Plan B was widely available and widely understood, then there would be fewer abortions because there would be fewer accidental pregnancies,” she said. Swanberg said she currently has a prescription for Plan B and “wouldn’t hesitate to use it.”

Jennifer Ziock, a senior, has used Plan B twice and supports its over-the-counter use due to its reliability. “I do think it should be available over the counter, as it is a safe, fairly reliable way to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex,” she said.

Advocates say Plan B should be easily accessible, as it is difficult to predict when unprotected sex may occur. The drug must be taken within 72 hours to be effective, a time constraint that concerned Wood as it can be difficult to adhere to while attempting to get a prescription filled. “It’s safe … and more effective the quicker you have it,” she said. “If you need it on Saturday morning, Monday morning is too late.”

Stacia Mills, a senior and president of Choice USA, the abortion rights club on campus, has never used the drug before but said she understands its importance. “Women need … easy access to this medication in a timely fashion [because] sometimes it’s difficult for women to get to the doctor’s office in time,” she said.

Despite the continuing political debate, six states, including California, have already approved the use of Plan B without a prescription. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, California established its emergency contraceptive “pharmacy access” program in 2002. Pharmacists who have undergone specific training are permitted to sell Plan B to female customers upon providing them with a consultation. 18 percent of California pharmacies participate in the program, six of which are located in Oakland.

Freshwoman Alison Lowrie said she has purchased Plan B before using the “pharmacy access” program yet believes there is still work to be done to make it accessible to women. In her ideal world, Plan B would be available on store shelves, eliminating the hassle of prescriptions and awkward pharmacy consultations.

“I just found it really embarrassing to be talking to this 60-year-old male pharmacist,” she said. “It would be a lot nicer to be able to get it for myself, no hassle.”