A bill in the New York state Legislature would expand access to the controversial emergency contraception pill known as “Plan B One-Step” by making it easier for women younger than 17 to obtain it.
Right now, Plan B is available without a prescription from pharmacies and health clinics to women 17 or older, while women 16 and younger must make an appointment with a doctor for an individual prescription to be filled by a pharmacist. The bill would change that, allowing nurses and pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception using non-patient specific prescriptions written by licensed physicians, certified nurse practitioners or licensed midwives.
Late last year, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled a Food and Drug Administration decision that would have made emergency contraceptives available over the counter to all women, including women under 17.
Supporters and opponents of the state bill say that it would circumvent Sebelius’ controversial decision, if passed.
In a memo outlining its opposition to the bill, the New York State Catholic Conference writes that the legislation would “eliminate the patient-specific physician requirement for the ‘morning after pill’ for girls under age 17, enabling them to purchase the drugs at any drugstore or obtain them from a school nurse, without any parental knowledge or doctor’s supervision. The legislation ... is an attempt to circumvent this federal ruling by providing girls under age 17 with easy access to Plan B.”
Donna Montalto, executive director of the New York state chapter of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, agreed that the bill circumvents Sebelius’ decision. But she viewed that as a good thing. “It will provide more access to Plan B, and that’s a way to prevent teenage pregnancies.”
One place that provides Plan B, and also supports the proposed bill, is Planned Parenthood.
Blue Carreker, a spokeswoman for Upper Hudson Planned Parenthood in Albany, said the organization only provides Plan B to those 17 and older, and that underage patients are told to get a prescription. She said the proposed legislation is designed to help people access emergency contraception when health care facilities and providers are closed.
“Women should have easy access to emergency contraception,” Carreker said. “It’s safe and effective.” The bill “is motivated by a broad concern that young women should be able to prevent unintended pregnancies.”
Ronnie Pawelko, the general counsel for Family Planning Advocates of New York State, said that Plan B is a time-sensitive drug that should be taken as soon after unprotected sex as possible.
Plan B One-Step can cut the chances of becoming pregnant in half if taken soon after unprotected sex. Experts say that it should not be used as a primary form of birth control, and that it should be taken within five days to be effective.
According to the FDA, Plan B works like other birth control pills to prevent pregnancy, usually by stopping the release of an egg from the ovary, although it might also prevent fertilization. If fertilization does occur, Plan B might prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb, a process known as implantation.
Much of the controversy over Plan B stems from whether it prevents implantation.
Opponents say that pregnancy begins at fertilization, and that preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb is the equivalent of having an abortion. But supporters and medical professionals believe that pregnancy begins with implantation, and that it is impossible for Plan B to terminate a pregnancy, because it works before a pregnancy actually exists.
“We don’t think women know what they’re ingesting,” said Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activist for the New York State Catholic Conference.
Sebelius’ decision marked the first time a Health and Human Services secretary had ever publicly overruled the FDA. She said it was unclear whether girls as young as 11 could safely use Plan B.
The legislation is sponsored by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, and Senator Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan.