Plan B and Personal Responsibility

Science, technology, and life.
April 24 2009 9:21 AM

Plan B and Personal Responsibility

Good news in the fight against teen pregnancy: The FDA is making to it easier for young people to get morning-after pills.

Here's the FDA's announcement :

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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On March 23, 2009, a federal court issued an order directing the FDA, within 30 days, to permit the Plan B drug sponsor to make Plan B available to women 17 and older without a prescription. The government will not appeal this decision. In accordance with the court's order, and consistent with the scientific findings made in 2005 by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research,  FDA notified the manufacturer of Plan B informing the company that it may, upon submission and approval of an appropriate application, market Plan B without a prescription to women 17 years of age and older.

The New York Times warns that Plan B won't solve the problem :

Contraception advocates have pushed for easy access to Plan B for girls and women of all ages because the longer a woman delays in taking the medicine after unprotected sex, the more likely she will become pregnant. Eliminating doctors from the transactions, it was hoped, would lead to far fewer pregnancies and abortions. Indeed, advocates once predicted that widespread and easy access to emergency contraceptives would cut the number of induced abortions in half and slash teenage birth rates. But young people in the United States have so much unprotected sex—one in three girls under the age of 20 will get pregnant, with 80 percent of the pregnancies unplanned—that Plan B has been little more than a sandbag on an overtopped flood wall. Even women who are given the medicine free often fail to take it after having unprotected sex. "This is not going to be a cheap cure to the unintended pregnancy epidemic in this country," said James Trussell, director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University.

Trussell has made the same point before : Emergency contraception has

not reduced unintended pregnancies in America or anywhere else that has introduced it. There is so much unprotected sex you would have to use so much emergency contraception to make a dent. ... It is not a magic bullet. If you want to seriously reduce unintended pregnancies in the UK you can only do [that] with implants and IUDs.

Why implants and IUDs? Because you don't have to think about them . They bypass the most common cause of what we erroneously call contraceptive failure: our own failure to use contraceptives properly and consistently.

I agree that using implants to bypass human failure is the most effective way to prevent unintended pregnancies. But that's no excuse for tolerating our failure in the first place. Emergency contraception, taken promptly after sex, can be (though you shouldn't rely on it) a magic bullet. But bullets don't work unless you fire them. Technology requires human agency .

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, makes precisely this point about the FDA's decision: "Providing birth control, including emergency birth control, to young women helps them make responsible decisions and avoid unintended pregnancy."

The FDA hasn't solved the problem of unintended pregnancy. It has given you one more means to solve it. Go get your emergency contraception, now. And while you're at it, ask about an implant, so you won't have to count on a last-minute pill to bail you out. The responsibility is yours.

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