Posted Friday, Jan. 6, 2012, at 1:03 PM
Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Defenders of Kathleen Sebelius' decision to overrule the FDA's decison to make Plan B emergency contraception available over-the-counter without age restrictions floated the specter of 11-year-old girls having sex to justify the decision. (Though, of course, the sex has already happened when the Plan B is purchased, so really, people who float this argument are just arguing that it's better for the 11-year-old in question to be pregnant than not, which seems really cruel.) The reality is that fewer than 1 percent of 11-year-olds are sexually active, so the real people hurt by these restrictions are the 15- and 16-year-olds having sex with age-appropriate partners and those 17 and older who have a legal right to the pill but find that having to ask for a pharmacist to fetch it is too much of an obstacle, because either the pharmacy counter is closed or because the pharmacy staff won't hand it over, either out of ignorance or malice.
For those who would scoff at the chance that these are serious concerns, I give you the story of Jason Melbourne of Mesquite, Texas. Melbourne went to the Mesquite CVS to buy Plan B for his wife, who had to stay home to look after their two small children. The reward he got for being a good husband who goes to the drugstore to buy lady things for his wife was resistance from the pharmacy staff, who refused to sell him the drug because they claimed to believe that men don't have a legal right to buy it. Well, the problem is there are no gender restrictions on access to Plan B, something that Melbourne demonstrated to the staff by use of Google on a smartphone. They continued to refuse to sell to him, making outrageous claims about men supplying the drug to rape victims, even though he got his wife on the phone to explain the situation. Melbourne is the second man in Texas who has reported being denied Plan B at a CVS to the ACLU. Considering how many people don't contact the ACLU after having their rights violated---or who would believe the pharmacy staff's claims---that suggests this could be a widespread problem.
Certainly, initial research suggests a lot of people who have a right to over-the-counter access to Plan B are being routinely denied at pharmacies. A paper published in JAMA last month described researchers who posed as 17-year-old girls (who have a legal right to Plan B without a prescription) and called pharmacies around the country, asking for the drug. In 19 percent of the calls, the caller was told she couldn't obtain the drug under any circumstances. In most of these situations where those who have a right are being denied access, I suspect the problem is less malice than ignorance. Regardless of why pharmacies are failing their customers, however, the solution is the same: The HHS needs to reverse its decision and allow Plan B to be taken out from behind the pharmacy counter and put on the shelves, available to whoever wants it.