Opponents, however, say such a decision would expose girls and women to potential risks from taking high doses of a potent hormone, interfere with parents’ ability to monitor their children and make it easier for men to prey on vulnerable minors.
The request follows a series of steps in recent years that have gradually made Plan B easier to obtain. If it is approved, the pill would move out from behind pharmacists’ counters, eliminating the requirement that women produce a prescription or prove that they are at least 17 years old to get it without a doctor’s order. Instead, Plan B would be available on store shelves, along with condoms, contraceptive sponges and spermicides.
“Hopefully, it will be right on the shelves between the condoms and the pregnancy tests,” said Kirsten Moore of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. “We think it’s good news for women’s health and long overdue.”
Plan B consists of a synthetic form of progesterone; this hormone is found in many standard birth-control pills, but Plan B contains it at higher doses. Taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, the pill has been shown to be 89 percent effective at safely preventing pregnancy.
The drug has long been controversial and was the focus of one of the biggest health disputes during the administration of President George W. Bush. Plan B works primarily by preventing an egg from being fertilized. Critics, however, focus on the chance that it may prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb, an action they consider equivalent to an abortion. As a result, it has been the subject of intense debate and conflict. Some doctors refuse to write prescriptions for it, some pharmacists refuse to fill requests, and some hospitals refuse to provide it to patients.
“It’s not a drug that prevents life — it’s a drug that destroys life,” said Jeanne Monahan of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group. “If we define life as beginning at fertilization or conception, then this drug can be an abortifacient.”
The debate over restrictions
The FDA approved Plan B in 1999, but only for women who first obtained a prescription from a doctor. With strong support from women’s health groups and family-planning advocates, the drug’s maker asked the FDA in 2003 to ease the rules to allow totally free sale without a prescription so women would not have to scramble — often in late-night or weekend panics after having sex without protection, having a condom break or being raped — to find a doctor to write a prescription and an open pharmacy to fill it.