As we mentioned earlier, the FDA has a complicated past with Plan B. This week they were supposed to announce a major overhaul in that relationship and finally approving it for OTC status for women of all ages. This means anyone who had unprotected sex could purchase it without having to get a prescription or be told “no I don’t believe in using contraceptives” by a judgmental pharmacist. Apparently the Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius did not agree with the FDA’s intended decision so she used her power as head of the HHS to override the decision; something no prior Secretary has done.
Advocates of reproductive health access are livid and the FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg doesn’t seem much happier to see her administrations authority demolished like this. In a statement she is very clear that her intent had been to approve Plan B as an OTC medication, but that her power to do so was stripped at the last minute by Secretary Sebelius. She is very firm in her belief that the medication is safe for women of all ages to take.
Sebelius claims her decision was based on the fact that Teva, Plan B’s manufacturer failed to provide data showing Plan B to be safe for people under 17 to take without a prescription. However, this is untrue. According to an article in the Washington Post Teva conducted two separate studies of tweens 11-17 to see if they could understand the instructions that come with Plan B. The results of the study showed that they in fact can read and comprehend the instructions, even at age 11.
It seems that the reality of this decision was not based in science and medical safety. It was based in that fact that people don’t want to accept that people younger than 17 have sex. The truth is, almost 1/3 of American teens have lost their virginity by the time they turn 17. That is denying 1/3 of the teen population access to something that could greatly diminish their chances of getting pregnant.
Granted even the staunchest advocate must get a little uncomfortable with the idea that an 11 year old might need Plan B. I get that, I am uncomfortable with it too. It is impossible to think of a circumstance where an 11 or 12 year old could be having sex that is genuinely consensual, healthy and not the result of rape and coercion. When that is the case, having a doctors involvement has the potential to get the teen help so needing a prescription has potential benefits.
The problem is that by focusing on the youngest set of possible consumers, you are forgetting the 15 and 16 year olds who may well be quite capable of determining that they are ready for sex. But who don’t have parents who would approve so they might need to get Plan B without a parent knowing. By requiring them to have a prescription it severely limits their access.
I think a good compromise that should have been the end decision would have been to recognize that teenagers are capable of making responsible choices about their sexuality and lowering the age requirement to 15 or 16. Would it have appeased everybody? No, advocates would still want it to be accessed by any/everyone who wants it and more conservative parties would want to limit teens access to it at all. But it would have been a significant move for teens and reproductive access.