On: new EC and access for all

This post has two parts: (1) an update on ella™ and (2) barriers to access for men.

Last Friday, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it was approving the sale and use of ulipristal acetate (UPA), a new form of emergency contraception (EC) to be sold under the name ella™.  Already available to and used by women in Europe, UPA has been determined to prevent pregnancy up to 5 days after unprotected intercourse. Emergency contraception has been available in the US, most popularly under the name Plan B. Plan B is available from a doctor or over the counter to women and men age 18 and above and  to women 17 and younger with a prescription. UPA/ella’s approval is a win for US women because it’s one more option to help prevent unintended pregnancy. Whether you had unprotected sex in a moment of questionable judgment or your preferred method of birth control failed, you can get your “back up” method of protection in Plan B or ella. I’ve posted about EC before and of course I encourage you to check it out. I want to spend the rest of this entry venting about a twitter exchange I had earlier in the week related to EC.

I am always amazed by and proud of my friends who are young black professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, etc. I like that they’re in positions of authority which command respect but more importantly allows them to help others and wield influence. That’s why it bothers me so when I feel that their influence has been misused. When I found out that a pharmacist friend of mine was denying the right of men to purchase EC I was beside myself. Some background might explain why it bothered me so much.

Over-the-counter EC such as Plan B was approved by the FDA to be made available in drugstores and health centers without a prescription for women and men 17 and older. That means if you show proper identification to the pharmacist or pharmacy tech, he/she should hand over the EC. Period. The FDA didn’t make any further distinction about additional circumstances or considerations so there aren’t any. Still, some pharmacists believe they should insert their own judgment where it is not necessary. To summarize what my pharm friend said: a woman needs to come in and buy EC herself or at the very least accompany the man. You don’t want to enable a child molester seeking to destroy evidence (pregnancy) of his crime. You don’t want an angry mother to find the Plan B box and go yelling at the pharmacist. It’s just policy.

Wowsers. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. According to the ACLU,

time is of the essence when accessing emergency contraception. Experts stress that emergency contraception is most effective the sooner a woman takes it, and its effectiveness decreases every 12 hours. It is therefore crucial that a customer can get access to emergency contraception as soon as it is needed. A couple who is trying to quickly access emergency contraception to prevent an unintended pregnancy should be supported by the pharmacy, not shunned.

Exactly. Maybe the woman is at school, work, or tending her children. Perhaps the man is closer to the pharmacy or has the cash on hand. It’s possible she’s embarrassed and knows someone who works the counter. It’s even likely that there is no woman waiting at home to take EC but that the man, being proactive and responsible, wants to buy a package to keep on hand. We tell women all the time that it’s a good idea to keep Plan B in your medicine cabinet as a just-in-case method you hope you don’t have to use. Why shouldn’t the same wisdom apply to men?

So when a pharmacist refuses to sell to the man he could be doing more harm than good. My pharm friend suggested they go somewhere else. Living and working in a metro-urban area, I guess he can say that with ease. What of the many men and women who don’t have many pharmacy options at all? Some folks have ONE local drugstore to get everything they need with the next place being inconvenient. If you’re like me, you have no car and going to the next place could put off what is already a time sensitive mission. Even worse, imagine a scenario where the next pharmacy has the same policy. And the next.  And even the next after that.

Not too long ago*, the ACLU condemned Walgreens for refusing to sell EC to men. Fortunately, Walgreens issued a bulletin to their employees stating

emergency contraception can be sold to “male and female customers age 17 and older.” The bulletin also said that a male customer who asks to purchase emergency contraception need not be “accompanied by a female, and does not need to identify the individual for whom he is purchasing the product.” This policy tracks the FDA’s guidelines for distribution of emergency contraception.

I get so mad because this isn’t so different from pharmacists refusing to sell EC to WOMEN because of their religious convictions. Whereas I respect one’s right to do what their religion dictates, I also need to give power to the law and have access to legal medication deemed safe for me by federal agencies and medical professionals. I also get upset because I think of crazy people denying women and men their reproductive rights and access to medical care. I got a reality check of my own when homeboy spoke up about what really goes down. We’re still cool but my convictions are solidified and I know that I have to keep doing work to ensure access to those who need it.

* Update from the ACLU: Walgreens Continues Gender Discrimination at the Pharmacy

  • Capricorn

    YES, emergency contraception should be easy to get. You are a pharmacist to dispense medications, not your religious belief. If you feel uncomfortable with contraception, then you should not be dispensing ANY of it for ANY reason (women take BC for reasons OTHER than contraception). My pharmacist is not my OB/GYN, nor my Pastor, nor my partner, so his/her opinion on why I take any drug is not relavent to their job duty to DISPENSE medicines. Your pharm friend was making a judgement call on something they knew NOTHING about.