The controversial “morning-after” contraceptive pill appears headed to a spot on shelves at Minnesota drugstores.
The Obama administration said Monday it will drop its challenge to a court ruling ordering that Plan B One-Step, which can prevent conception if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, be made available without prescription to women of all ages.
With the pill poised to move out from behind pharmacy counters, Minnesotans reacted with skepticism, praise and some measure of hesitation.
Suzy Sullivan, a mother of two in Cambridge, paused to remember her own adolescence — and to worry that the change could place too much power in the hands of those who are too young. Sullivan said her own mother understood her decision to become sexually active and took her to the clinic for birth control.
“I will do everything I can to keep them safe,” she said of her own daughters, now 4 and 6. But she worries that the decision will turn life-changing choices over to women who are still children.
“This is not Plan B — this is Plan A,” she said.
For leading advocates in the debate over reproductive rights, the decision did not change long-held beliefs.
Sarah Stoesz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and the Dakotas, called the decision “a breakthrough for young women.” Timely access to the Plan B pill could make it more effective in a time of need, she said. “Compared to many other drugs that sit on shelves, this one is very safe,” Stoesz added.
Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, called the move a mistake.
“It really sacrifices the health and well-being of our children for political purposes,” Prichard said. “We are encouraging irresponsible behaviors.”
Keeping an eye out
For pharmacists such as Tom Sengupta, the decision could mean more time counseling customers.
Sengupta, owner of Schneider Pharmacy in southeast Minneapolis, plans to move the pill to store’s front counter, where he will be able to watch anyone who buys it.
“There will be change here,” Sengupta said. “I would like to talk to the people who are buying it — somebody has to talk to [them].”
Sengupta said about four to five customers a month purchase the pill in his old-fashioned pharmacy.
Influential doctors’ groups welcomed the step, calling it a major shift in the societal battle over women’s reproductive rights.
“Allowing unrestricted access to emergency contraception products is a historic step forward in protecting the health of our patients who are sexually active,” said Dr. Thomas McInerny, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The science has always been clear: Emergency contraception is a safe, effective tool to prevent unintended pregnancy in adolescents of any reproductive age.”
Even so, many details remain to be worked out, including whether a federal judge agrees that the government has gone far enough or whether cheaper generics can be sold without restrictions, too.
The morning-after pill contains a higher dose of the female hormone progestin than found in regular birth control pills. Taking it within 72 hours of intercourse can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent, but it works best within the first 24 hours. If a girl or woman already is pregnant, the pill, which prevents ovulation or fertilization of an egg, has no effect.
The controversy over Plan B dates to 2011, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was preparing to allow over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill with no limits; Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, with the support of President Obama, overruled her own scientists in an unprecedented move.
Then, in April, the FDA announced that Plan B One-Step — the same drug but combined into one pill instead of two — could be sold without a prescription to those ages 15 and older. Its maker, Teva Women’s Health, plans to begin those sales soon. Sales had previously been limited to those who were at least 17.
The International Consortium on Emergency Contraception estimates that six countries have such drugs available over the counter.
The federal government has not set a date for the change.