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28 August 2006

US decision on ECP ‘a victory for science over ideology’

After three years of controversy, the USA has approved over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive pill.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made its decision on 24 August. The drug, Plan B, will be sold only to women over the age of 18. Younger people will still need a prescription. The pills will be kept behind pharmacy counters and the drug manufacturers will send anonymous shoppers to check whether pharmacists are enforcing the age restriction.

The makers, Barr Pharmaceuticals, say Plan B will be sold at pharmacies but not at corner shops or petrol stations. Barr has said it hopes to begin non-prescription sales of Plan B by the end of the year. ‘While we still feel that Plan B should be available to a broader age group without a prescription, we are pleased that the agency has determined that Plan B is safe and effective for use by those 18 years of age and older as an over-the-counter product,’ said company chief executive Bruce Downey.

‘This is a historic event in the struggle for women’s reproductive health and rights, and a long-overdue victory for science over ideology,’ says Sharon L. Camp, president and CEO of the US Guttmacher Institute. ‘For the first time we’re trusting women to make good reproductive health care decisions by letting them buy their own hormonal birth control, without a prescription.’

Emergency contraceptive pills (ECP) may prevent pregnancy if a woman takes them within 72 hours of having sexual intercourse. They work by stopping or delaying ovulation, or by stopping an egg settling in the womb. Research from the Guttmacher Institute suggests that in 2000, use of emergency contraceptives prevented more than 100,000 unintended pregnancies, 51,000 of which would have ended in abortion.

A news release from the Guttmacher Institute challenges the age restriction, claiming that this is ‘contrary to the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other medical groups’. This restriction, says the Institute, is ‘likely to delay or even prevent use within the window of time in which the pills are most effective. A number of studies support the safety of the drug for young teens and show that easier access does not lead to greater risk taking by teens.’

Pharmacists in the UK have been allowed to sell the morning-after pill without a prescription since 2001. bpas doctors can prescribe the morning after pill in advance, so that women will have a supply handy at home in case of emergency need.

US backs morning-after pill sales, BBC News, 24 August 2006
Plan B Decision by FDA a Victory for Common Sense, Guttmacher Institute, 24 August 2006