By this time next month, the morning-after pill — which can help prevent pregnancy when taken after sexual intercourse — could move out from behind pharmacy counters and onto the shelves of drugstores nationwide.
The morning-after pill’s over-the-counter availability hinges on whether the Obama administration meets a 30-day deadline to appeal a recent federal court ruling allowing emergency contraception to be sold over the counter to girls ages 16 and younger.
The administration should allow the April 5 ruling to stand.
The decision broadening access to emergency contraception could reduce unintended pregnancies among consumers of all ages. Moreover, the ruling draws on science — unlike speculation about whether the morning-after pill is safe and how it works.
Current federal law has made it difficult for women ages 17 and older to buy the morning-after pill when they need it, although they don’t need a prescription for the purchase.
Emergency contraception is up to 89 percent effective when taken within the first 72 hours after unprotected intercourse. Even though they don’t have to have a prescription to buy it, however, women 17 and older can’t just grab the morning-after pill off the shelf and take it up to the cash register. They have to show government-issued ID before a pharmacy worker can bring it out from behind the counter. That restriction makes access to the drug impossible when the pharmacy gate is closed.
One reason that access to the morning-after pill has become so controversial is the belief of some abortion critics that it terminates a pregnancy. According to widespread scientific consensus, however, Plan B, the most common brand of emergency contraception, prevents a pregnancy; it does not end one.
Furthermore, many medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have affirmed the safety of emergency contraception.
(The judge who wrote the recent ruling pointed out there’s no age requirement to buy over-the-counter cough medication, which can cause hypertension, toxic psychosis and coma when abused.)
Plan B, the most common brand of emergency contraception, does not cause birth defects if a pregnant woman takes it. In fact, according to the WHO, even women who are advised not to take regular contraceptive pills, such as those with a history of migraine or severe liver disease, may safely use emergency contraception.
Of course, sexuality is an emotionally charged topic, and we would like this to be a world where all families openly discuss puberty and sex and no teenage girl has to decide what to do after having risky sex. It would be callous, however, to force a girl in less-secure circumstances to either bear an unwanted child or undergo an abortion when there’s a way to prevent that.
“You’d hope your child would come and talk to you about that, but that’s not everyone’s situation,” a Portland parent told the Portland Press Herald after the recent ruling. “There are two sides to everything.”
We hope that the Obama administration sees it that way, too.