For a decade, ACOG has supported making emergency contraception (EC) available over the counter (OTC) without an age restriction. So it was deeply troubling and disappointing to see HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overrule the US Food and Drug Administration’s decision to remove the age restriction and make Plan B® One-Step accessible to all females capable of becoming pregnant.
The argument that 11- and 12-year-olds are not capable of understanding how to use EC isn’t true, based on the data, and it misses the point. The majority of girls this young are not sexually active and do not represent the bulk of adolescents who are at risk of an unwanted pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of all high school students in the US have had sex at least once, and 85% of adolescent pregnancies are unintended. These high school students are the adolescents who would most benefit from OTC access to EC.
The overwhelming scientific evidence shows that EC is safe for teens and women and is highly effective in preventing unintended pregnancy. Ideally, all sexually active teens and women would use effective contraception each and every time they engaged in sexual intercourse to avoid an unplanned pregnancy. But, we don’t live in a perfect world—a condom tears or you miss a pill, for instance. Rapid access to EC is especially important for women that have been raped.
EC products contain the same hormones as oral contraceptives, only in a higher dose. EC works primarily by preventing ovulation, but it can also prevent fertilization or implantation. However, timing is critical: EC is most effective when taken within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse. This is why OTC access is so important. There’s no need to wait for a doctors’ appointment to get a prescription, or to have the prescription filled.
While EC does not replace the consistent use of reliable birth control, making it available without a prescription to all provides an important safety net. For this reason, ACOG will continue to advocate for removing this unnecessary age restriction to OTC EC.