Teens will continue to need a prescription to obtain over-the-counter emergency contraception like Plan B, also called the “morning after pill,” following a debate between two governmental entities. Research suggests this decision may affect black teens more.
Two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized its decision that young women under the age of 17 should not be permitted to obtain emergency contraception without a prescription. The decision was levied despite a disagreement between the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Costing on average, $50, Plan B is intended to prevent pregnancy within 72 hours of having unprotected sex. The pill cannot abort an existing pregnancy, and it is not intended to replace regular birth control.
The FDA initially recommended that Plan B be made available to teenagers without a prescription as it is now for adults over 17. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services decided to maintain the restriction.
In supporting her decision, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said that Plan B’s manufacturer did not study whether 11-year-old girls can comprehend the label and use it properly; thus, there is no evidence that suggests girls 16 and younger should be allowed to buy it without a prescription.
Additionally, she noted that teenagers have about a one in ten chance of being physically capable of becoming pregnant, making the necessity for Plan B in this age group infrequent anyway.
Still, leaders close to the issue of teen pregnancy believe that although the health secretary diligently evaluated the safety and the effectiveness of Plan B, she may have missed the root of the issue.
Stephen B. Thomas, PhD, who is a professor of Health Services Administration in the School of Public Health and the director of the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity, said the conversations on the issues driving the market for Plan B have stopped.
“What needs to happen is that we need to decrease the likelihood that Plan B will even be needed for children in that age category,” Thomas told theGrio. “The mere fact that the secretary [addressed] that we have children at that age level who are sexually active is a much bigger issue that Plan B.”
Some family planning advocates believe that the department’s decision will continue to feed unwanted teenage pregnancy statistics.
Bill Albert, Chief Program Officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, said he is disappointed that limited access to Plan B for girls under age 17 has been maintained.
“If the Department of Health and Human Services had approved over-the-counter availability of this method for those 16 and under… [the] change could have made [emergency contraception] far more available to women of all ages — which on balance is a wise path.”
Statistics have revealed that minorities, especially African-American teenagers, face a greater risk of unplanned pregnancies compared to the general population.
In 2009, a National Campaign Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that nearly two-thirds of all non-Hispanic black teens had had sex and almost half were sexually active. Additionally, non-Hispanic black students were more likely than their non-Hispanic white and Latino peers to have reported having four or more sexual partners, and having had sex for the first time before the age of 13.
Thomas, who is also the principal investigator of the Research Center of Excellence on Minority Health Disparities, said he was not surprised by the statistics.
“It is alarming and it is stigmatizing – but the data speaks for itself,” he said. “It is a huge concern. Unwanted pregnancies can completely change the life trajectory of the young mother and the infant.”
Although this data was presented to the FDA in defense of lowering the age restriction, Sebelius upheld her decision that young women under the age of 17 should not be permitted to obtain emergency contraception without a prescription. President Obama supported Sebelius’s ruling.
Albert questioned the decision to keep teens from using this method to prevent pregnancy.
“Easing access to contraception, including emergency contraception, is an important public health goal,” Albert concluded. “The long- term objective of the government should be to continue improving access to all methods of contraception.”
Thomas said the number of adolescents with unwanted pregnancies and STD outweighs the government’s logic for restricting teen access to Plan B.
“There are kids that do stupid things, but an unintended pregnancy is a tragic situation that no one wants to see happen,” he said. “We need to apply the energy used in the approval and disapproval of Plan B, and focus it on the education of how we can prevent these unintended teen pregnancies due to premature sexual behavior among youth.”
Thomas asserted the FDA and HHS need to educate consumers on contraceptive products, and society needs to better educate teenagers about sex.
“Suppose there is no loving, caring adult in that child’s life, what are they supposed to do?,” he said to theGrio. “We are not following up with the education on how we can prevent these issues in the first place. I greatly believe that African-American and Latino leaders need to speak up in this debate. Statistics would show that these are the groups that will benefit from these broader conversations.”