Women’s health advocates have fought for over-the-counter access to emergency contraception for more than a decade, and their efforts were finally realized this week. Thursday, August 1 marked the day that pharmacies and grocery stories across the country were supposed to begin stocking Plan B on their shelves, available for purchase without a prescription.
The “Healthcare In Our Hands” campaign is celebrating by encouraging Americans to submit photos of Plan B on pharmacy shelves. On the campaign’s Tumblr page, the photos from states around the country are accompanied by captions like, “Thumbs up for emergency contraception over the counter, and increased access!”
This week is the culmination of a contentious battle that has stretched on for the past several months. The FDA used to require girls younger than 17 to obtain a prescription for the morning after pill — a policy that medical experts said was unnecessary, and a significant barrier to contraceptive access. In April, a federal judge ordered the Obama Administration to remove all age restrictions on Plan B so that women of all ages could purchase it over the counter. Federal officials were reluctant to comply with the judge’s orders and filed a legal appeal, although the administration did end up lowering the age restriction to 15. Eventually, in June, the administration gave up the fight and agreed to make over-the-counter Plan B available to women of all ages.
Before the age restriction was lifted, Plan B was kept behind pharmacy counters. Anyone who wanted to buy it needed to ask a pharmacist first, even if they were old enough to purchase it without a prescription. That led to some misconceptions about who was actually allowed to buy the contraceptive — and some pharmacy employees incorrectly told customers over the age of 17 that they needed a prescription, or incorrectly denied Plan B to men trying to purchase it.
Now, advocates hope that some of those barriers to access will be eliminated. More people may also feel comfortable buying emergency contraception if they can do it more discreetly. Similar logic has led many pharmacies to create a separate aisle for sexual health resources like condoms, instead of keeping them right by the pharmacy counter.
But at least one investigation in California has found that, even though the August 1 deadline has arrived, not all pharmacies may actually be stocking their shelves with Plan B yet. One reporter found that chain pharmacies in the Bay Area haven’t made Plan B visible — largely because of the $49.99 price tag. “If we put it out, people might steal it. That’s why we have to put it in the office,” a pharmacy employee explained. The high price of Plan B is partly due to the FDA’s “sweetheart arrangement” with pharmaceutical giant Teva Pharmaceuticals, which has exclusive rights to sell over-the-counter emergency contraception for at least three years.