WHAT IT MEANS AND WHY IT’S IMPORTANT — "I am appalled that politics has once again trumped science," wrote Brooklyn College Health Clinic director and nurse practitioner Ilene Tannenbaum in a letter to the New York Times. That reaction summed up much of the medical community's response to the Department of Health and Human Services' overruling of the Food and Drug Administration's decision to make the Plan B contraceptive pill a full nonprescription product.
(THE NEWS: Medical community decries decision to maintain status quo of emergency contraceptive. For the full story, click here)
But a key difference between a physician’s office and a retail pharmacy is that people don’t walk into the latter by appointment and under a cloak of confidentiality — retail pharmacies are called the most accessible healthcare facilities for a reason. Thus, making Plan B available to anyone of any age would likely raise a lot of eyebrows, particularly among parents uncomfortable with the idea of their daughters becoming sexually active and having a convenient way to prevent conception. So whatever the medical merits or demerits for making the drug easier to buy, at least retailers will be spared the need to explain its easier accessibility to the communities in which they operate, not to mention the many awkward moments that could result.
From a scientific standpoint, however, some of HHS’ reasons for not removing Plan B’s prescription status could raise a lot of eyebrows as well. HHS said that Teva Pharmaceutical Industries hadn’t shown that 11-year-old girls could safety take the drug. But in another letter to the Times, Guttmacher Institute director of domestic research Lawrence Finer pointed out that less than 1% of girls that age are sexually active, while almost half of girls have had sex before the age of 17.