Pharmacy
The Plan B pill will remain a behind-the-counter non-prescription drug. Image: Flickr / Clean Wal-Mart / CC-BY

Plan B, also known as the “morning after pill,” has been available for several years without a prescription to women 17 or older. Despite an FDA recommendation that the drug be moved from behind the pharmacy counter and be more widely available, it will still be strictly limited.

Recommendation for Plan B

After extensive safety testing, the FDA has recommended that Plan B be sold over the counter in drugstores. The reasoning behind this recommendation is that Plan B is essentially safe; it provides a dose of hormones that are generally considered safe and effective. The FDA said that, compared to the potential side effects, the risk of putting the drug on the shelves was minimal. Acetaminophen and aspirin are known to have higher risks than the drugs in Plan B.

Sebelius overrules recommendation

Citing concerns that young girls may have access to Plan B without an understanding of how or why it should be used, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA recommendations. This overruling means that Plan B will continue to be available only to individuals 17 years of age or older who are willing to show their ID to prove their age. Obama has defended the decision, saying that Sebelius is “applying some common sense” to over-the-counter drugs and their approval.

Conscience clauses and Plan B

Part of the argument for moving Plan B to over the counter sales was the rise of “conscience clause” denials of the drug to customers. Conscience clauses are an attempt to protect pharmacists from prosecution if they choose not to dispense drugs they morally disagree with, including Plan B. Most appeals courts are ruling that conscience clauses are not constitutionally valid:

The unanimous ruling on the free-exercise clause could portend further judgments, as the case moves forward, that a patient’s right to timely medication supersedes a pharmacist’s personal convictions.

Until the conscience clause question has been decided, this method of emergency contraception – which is generally safe and effective and does not cause abortions – will be available only to women who are willing to show their identification, are older than 17 and find a pharmacist willing to dispense the drug.

Sources

New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/08/health/policy/sebelius-overrules-fda-on-freer-sale-of-emergency-contraceptives.html
Baltimore Sun: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/editorial/bs-ed-fda-20111208,0,2538703.story
MSNBC: http://vitals.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/12/07/9276757-plan-b-wont-be-available-otc-to-younger-teens-hhs-says
The Hastings Center: http://www.thehastingscenter.org/Publications/BriefingBook/Detail.aspx?id=2266
LA Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jul/09/nation/na-pill-ruling9

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