Could birth control be down aisle 5?

A federal judge – Judge Korman – made a ruling last month that called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make emergency contraceptives available over the counter with no age restrictions. But so far the Department of Health and Human Services and the FDA have only partially implemented this ruling – pharmacies may now sell emergency contraceptives without a prescription to women as young as 15 years old, but only if they can prove their age.

And as you read that you’re thinking, “Well, proving your age is easy, right?” Think again – because for some women it’s not.

PlanB_One-Step_photo_0907“This compromise doesn’t address the reality that not every woman has a photo ID – especially women in urban areas who may not drive and women age 15 and 16,” the President of NARAL Pro-Choice America Ilyse Hogue said about the decision.

While some 15-year-olds might have a learner’s permit already, there are 16 states that limit learning permits to those older than 15. Without a driver’s license or learner’s permit, women can use either a passport or birth certificate to verify their age. However, for young women still living at home, it is likely that these important documents are filed away in a desk or fire-safe box – which may or may not be locked or easily accessible. So this lowering of the age restriction to 15 for over-the-counter access to emergency contraceptives becomes only as helpful as the reality of the access.

All the while, the clock is ticking on the 72 hours or less that it takes in order for Plan B to be effective. There just isn’t enough time to scramble for any of these documents.

The Administration’s challenges, previously to the FDA and now to a federal judge, are simply putting politics over science. Their hesitation to implement these rulings is seemingly based in discomfort – an unwillingness to acknowledge that teenage girls as young as 15 years old might be having sexual experiences. Similarly, making contraceptives accessible over the counter would relinquish a level of control and familiarity that they’re using as a crutch.

We need to protect the rights of young women to access emergency contraceptives so that they don’t end up with unintended pregnancies at ages when they have barely grown up themselves.  It’s simple, the proof-of-age requirement leaves in place barriers that still restrict women. It robs them of bodily autonomy. It sets a standard that sexual behavior is worthy of punishment or, at the very least, the loss of dignity.

But even if the proof-of-age restriction was eliminated, the question remains of why Plan B, along with other forms of contraceptives, shouldn’t be available as over-the-counter drugs to women and girls of all ages. The reality is that there is no reason why they shouldn’t be over-the-counter, readily available drugs.

In 2011 the FDA determined that, based on scientific evidence, that morning-after pills were safe for “all females of child-bearing potential.” And last December the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists deemed that it was time to make non-emergency birth-control pills readily available on pharmacy shelves, without a prescription.

As drugs, birth control pills pose no greater risk than pain pills or decongestants to health – and we trust women to handle their own stuffy noses and sore throats. Contraceptives are especially safe now, with birth control pills containing lower doses of estrogen than when they first became available in the United States more than 50 years ago.

It may be  hard to imagine a world where birth control pills are sitting on the shelf next to the cough syrup and Tylenol, but just because the concept is unfamiliar does not mean that isn’t the right direction to move in. If we change the way we think about access and we make the choice to prioritize it, then we as a society can empower women, and undoubtedly affect the rate of unintended pregnancies in the country.

What’s more, establishing contraceptives as over-the-counter drugs would eliminate so many discrimination lines created by the current access standards – those of economic status, geographic location, age, race and circumstance. It would also ease the stigma about women taking control of their reproductive health. Because empowering women undoubtedly benefits everyone.

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