As I waited in line for the pharmacist, I shifted my weight from hip to hip, trying to maintain an aura of calm and collectedness as my heart pounded. Why was I so nervous? There was nothing wrong with what I was doing. I was a strong advocate for what I was about to do. I was a 24-year-old woman, and I had every right to be there.
I approached the counter when it was my turn and mumbled, “I need the morning-after pill, please.” The pharmacist raised his eyebrows, asked for my identification, and after seeing I was over the age of 17, he retrieved it for me. He told me to read the directions and “just follow what it says,” almost didactically, as if he thought I wasn’t smart enough to understand. I nervously thanked him and smiled. His response? He smirked, rolled his eyes, tossed the box at me, and sneered, “Sure, hon, have fun.”
That was three years ago in “liberal” Chicago. An ardent supporter of reproductive rights and a staunch feminist, I felt ashamed and embarrassed for accessing the reproductive health care to which I had every right. The shame and stigma around emergency contraception, and all reproductive health care for that matter, all too often deter those who need reproductive care the most from accessing it—regardless of legality.
That is a large part of why the new on-the-shelf status for Plan B One-Step is significant. The well-known morning-after pill will now be available over-the-counter for all ages. That’s right, the pill should now be directly on pharmacy shelves. All anyone has to do is pick it up and pay for it at the cash register.
Though emergency contraception has been available without a prescription for those 17 and over, it was until recently placed behind the counter. This meant that to obtain emergency contraception, one would have to ask a pharmacist for it, which could discourage many people from seeking it in the first place. People under the age of 17 can now legally purchase emergency contraception without a prescription, something they were unable to do before.
Allowing Plan B One-Step to be available over-the-counter without age or point-of-sale restrictions could help people no longer feel shamed when seeking emergency contraception. Customers no longer have to interact with potentially hostile pharmacy staff to access this basic form of reproductive health care. For teen girls who may already feel ashamed and guilty, this could enable them to seek emergency contraception when they otherwise wouldn’t. Going forward, this could potentially lead to fewer unwanted teenage pregnancies and abortions.
What’s more, emergency contraceptive pills are safer than aspirin, and have no long-term side effects. Having emergency contraception available over-the-counter without restrictions is a significant step toward ensuring reproductive health care for all, regardless of age. This ruling also encouragingly indicates an acceptance of scientific fact and a genuine prioritizing of health care over politics, a good sign going forward in the continual fight to ensure reproductive freedom for all. Too often, junk science is used to discount actual medical expertise in an effort to restrict reproductive freedom.
This marks an important milestone for reproductive rights advocates, but it is important to remember the battle to extend emergency contraceptive access to everyone is far from over.
For starters, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted exclusive marketing rights for three years to Teva Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Plan B One-Step. Put simply, this means that Plan B One-Step is the only form of emergency contraception that will be available for sale on store shelves without an age restriction. Generic forms of the pill may become available on store shelves soon, but only people 17 and over will be able to purchase them.
Generic pills typically cost 10 to 15 percent less than Plan B One-Step, and though Teva Pharmaceuticals is currently offering a $10 coupon, the three-year exclusive deal granted by the FDA ensures that emergency contraception will remain a financial impossibility for many individuals.
The FDA ruling will affect low-income teenagers and women the most, and that fits a larger trend in reproductive health care. As abortion is further restricted and clinics are forced to close due to targeted regulation of abortion provider (TRAP) laws, it is low-income women who are deterred from seeking the reproductive health care they need, especially given the unjust impact of the Hyde Amendment. The exclusivity given to Plan B One-Step simply reflects that trend of discrimination based on income level in obtaining proper reproductive health care.
Additionally, many people, especially teenagers, remain unaware of the new FDA ruling and what they can expect in trying to obtain Plan B One-Step over-the-counter.
That’s why efforts like the Healthcare in Our Hands Tumblr are so crucial at this moment. Led by the Reproductive Health Technologies Project—in partnership with numerous organizations, including the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the National Women’s Law Center—the site serves as a resource for advocates and consumers to both celebrate and explore emergency contraception’s new status.
While the FDA’s ruling to grant exclusivity to Teva maintains cost barriers, its approval for Plan B One-Step to be sold on shelves to people of all ages signals that, perhaps, we are turning a small but important corner in the effort for reproductive justice.
We must contextualize this ruling and continue to advocate for increased access and affordability of emergency contraception, but we must also take a moment to acknowledge that our work has paid off.
In a moment filled with so many brutal defeats, it becomes all the more important to celebrate a victory.