A special thanks to our intern Sam for her write-up of our Emergency Contraception Project:
Emergency contraception, also known as ‘EC,’ ‘Plan B’ or the ‘morning after pill,’ is a safe method of pregnancy prevention. Emergency contraception is most effective when taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex. However, the earlier emergency contraception is taken, the more likely it is to prevent pregnancy. As of September 2009, Plan B One-Step (a one dose version of emergency contraception) and a generic brand of emergency contraception are both available to all consumers 17 and older without a prescription; women younger than 17 still need to obtain a prescription from a licensed medical care provider for emergency contraception. While this all seems pretty straightforward to us, there are several major misconceptions that seem to be shared by pharmacies throughout the commonwealth.
While many pharmacies offer accurate information and honest responses, we want to make sure Virginians know where they can go to avoid any biased information or limited access.
So, we recruited some volunteers who got a taste of the accurate information and misconceptions that exist and are shared with women seeking pharmaceutical help. Our team of nine volunteers made calls to area pharmacists in an attempt to discover how readily available emergency contraception is and just how accurate the pharmacies’ information is. The team of volunteers heard a range of helpful, appalling, and inaccurate information. Several pharmacists or pharmacy technicians shared the correct age limitations, and provided clear and helpful explanations of how EC works in a woman’s body to prevent pregnancy. A good number of pharmacies shared possible side effects (such as nausea) and provided a referral to another pharmacy if they were out of stock.
However, there were far too many pharmacies that shared untruths. Our volunteers were told that EC prevents the ‘implantation of a baby and ovary in your uterus,’ and that a women must undergo mandatory counseling from a pharmacist before purchasing EC. Numerous pharmacy employees reported incorrect information, most often stating that a woman needed to be 18 to purchase Plan B without a prescription. Several pharmacies insisted that EC was an abortion pill (or did not know that such a thing as a medical abortion (RU-486) existed). Additionally, many pharmacies believed that a person must be female in order to purchase the medicine and refused to sell it to a male.
Reporting false information about emergency contraception is incredibly dangerous. Emergency contraception is not an abortion pill; if a woman is already pregnant, EC will do nothing. The sooner emergency contraption is taken, the more effective it is (within 72 hours at a maximum). If a 17 year old girl calls a pharmacy and is told she needs a prescription to purchase EC, she may miss the window of effectiveness before she is able to obtain the pill(s). Some pharmacies refused to stock EC altogether, and refuse to recommend a place it can be purchased.
The amount of misinformation and lack of availability is alarming. A woman seeking to prevent a pregnancy should receive honest, accurate and timely information about her ability to purchase emergency contraception and prevent an unplanned pregnancy. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia wishes to thank our wonderful volunteers for their hard work and completion of over 116 calls to Virginia pharmacies!
It is our goal to create a resource for all Virginians to know where EC is accessible in their own communities and to help educate pharmacy staff to share accurate information with their clientele. While there is a conscience clause in Virginia, which allows pharmacists to refuse to dispense birth control and Plan B, we would hope that those who do choose to dispense such common methods of pregnancy prevention share medically accurate information and follow the FDA’s guidelines. The bottom line is that anyone 17 and older (no matter his/her/hir gender) can purchase EC without a prescription. Be on the lookout in the near future for our resource guide to help identify pharmacies that provide real information.
Remember, it is your right and your choice.