The recent debate that has sprung up over emergency contraception has been filled with everything a medication shouldn’t—politics and confusion.
The recent federal court decision by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman that required pharmacies to sell emergency contraception over the counter without an age restriction was a way to fix this issue. It was simpler and backed by science—everything medication should be.
But the appeal by the Obama Administration—and the FDA announcement just hours prior approving Plan B One Step to be sold without a prescription to people age 15 and older—created a more inflated, messier situation than what was certainly needed. With multiple age restrictions and different variations of the drug thrown around, it’s easy for a young person—the most affected by any recent changes—to get lost in the semantics.
The 111th Congress, which took office in 2009, was the oldest Congress in U.S. history, with ages averaging at 57 in the House and 63 in the Senate. Today’s sitting legislative branch is only slightly younger. Plan B was legalized in 1999, so perhaps it’s important to consider, without undermining our politicians, their need for or personal experience with emergency contraception, compared to the young people that fall closer to the age restrictions. It’s likely those experiences are not that similar.
The need for a morning-after pill is not that comparable to the need for most other medications. It’s not like antibiotics, which can wait a few days for a doctor’s appointment and a pharmacy visit. Emergency contraception is needed soon after intercourse, and the longer one waits to take it, the less effective it is.
Confusing age restrictions can make obtaining a time-sensitive drug very stressful. The announcement by the FDA, and the subsequent support by the Obama Administration, requires 15-year-olds to provide identification, verifying their age in order to purchase the drug—a significant step up, supporters say, from the previous age restriction at 17. But, this change has it’s own set of resulting issues.
Most adults use a driver’s license in order to buy age-restricted medication, but the District requires young people to wait until they’re at least 16 before they can get a learner’s permit. So alternative means for identification are needed, such as a passport or birth certificate, as suggested by FDA Spokeswoman Stephanie Yao.
But birth certificates aren’t always easily accessible for some teens, and they can get lost. Getting a new copy in the District and Virginia is a rather swift, twenty-minute process if you’re lucky. But in Maryland, getting a new birth certificate, much like applying for a passport, takes 6-8 weeks. This isn’t okay for a pill that must be taken no later than 72 hours after intercourse.
The complicated steps call attention to the need for an age restriction at all. In 2011, when Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius overruled a decision by the FDA allowing emergency contraception to be sold without an age restriction, she cited a lack of scientific evidence for young girls who might take the drug.
However, that decision has been ridiculed by many doctor’s organizations, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, who say that the morning-after pill is safe to use at all child-bearing ages. So why keep the youngest from obtaining the pill? Congressmen and women and others passionate on the issue have said that access to emergency contraception increases the likelihood that adolescents will have sex, but some doctors and research firms are increasingly denying that claim.
Results from a 2008 National Survey of Family Growth, conducted by the Center for Disease Control, indicate that adolescents under 14 rarely, if ever, engage in sexual activity. But when they do, there is a higher probability that it is nonconsensual.
As a society that still grapples with victim blaming in cases of rape, should we add an unwanted child to the load our most unfortunate bear at ages as young as 14? 12?
It’s can be difficult to take in that kind of scenario, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. In efforts to protect our most vulnerable, age restrictions to emergency contraception hurt them more than help. It’s time for Congress to accept the painful truth that sometimes young people need this medication, and putting up barriers is counterproductive. The science is on our side. Set aside politics; fight this uncomfortable reality in ways that don’t add to the problem.