Seventeen-year-olds will soon be allowed to buy morning-after contraceptive pills without a doctor’s prescription after federal drug regulators complied with a judge’s order and lowered the age limit by a year.
The decision on Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration, which overturns one of the most controversial health rulings of the Bush administration, was scorned by abortion opponents and hailed by their abortion rights counterparts.
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Like their older counterparts, 17-year-old women will now be able to go to almost any pharmacy, clinic or hospital and, after showing proof of age, buy Plan B without a prescription. Men 17 and older may also buy Plan B for a partner.
This is, of course, excellent news. And a sign that the Obama administration, when it comes to decisions that pit science against ideology, will be significantly more moderate than the Bush administration was.
But, while I hate to rain on this parade — and again, really, great news!!! — it should give us a bit of pause that the drug is still only available without a prescription to people aged 17 and older. Like many advocates, I believe that everyone needs easy and fast access to emergency contraception (EC). And that’s something we shouldn’t stop fighting for just because the rules have been significantly relaxed.
It’s also a time to talk about things that FDA regulations can’t cure — namely, education. Far too many people, especially teens, just don’t know a) that emergency contraception exists or b) how to get it if they do. I know this from experience — when you have any history of working for Planned Parenthood, you get a lot of unexpected questions from a lot of people who need this kind of information. And the fact is that lots of people don’t know: what EC is or how it works, that EC can be taken for longer than just “the morning after,” how to ask for it, that men can buy EC too if need be, or that it’s even available without a prescription at all.
Those are huge gaps. And they need to be filled in through comprehensive sex education and public education campaigns, now. And to top it all off, we also need to find ways to make EC more affordable.
Because sadly, until we do that, legal access isn’t going to be the same thing as accessible.