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Experts Call for Easier Access to Emergency Contraception


WebMD Health News

Nov. 20, 2000 (New York) -- Long touted by many reproductive health professionals as "America's best kept secret," emergency oral contraception may one day be completely out in the open and as easy to buy as aspirin -- but not before the regulatory process causes a few headaches along the way.

Speaking here Thursday at a media briefing sponsored by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, many experts say these pills, which are a higher-than-usual dose of standard birth control pills, may eventually be available over the counter, and that could be a good thing for women.

"Emergency contraception pills are still underused in this country. We are trying to increase access to these pills by making them more widely available," says Carolyn Westhoff, MD, an attending physician and professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and public health at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. "We know that there is a need for emergency contraceptive pills and that women can easily identify for themselves whether or not they need it."

Westhoff and others at the briefing acknowledge, though, that there are still some major economic, bureaucratic and political hurdles to overcome before these pills make their way onto drugstore shelves. For example, insurance companies cover emergency contraception, but if these pills become available without a prescription, they will no longer cover the cost of these pills.

Emergency contraceptives act after intercourse by preventing the release of an egg from the ovaries or preventing a fertilized egg from implanting on the uterine wall. The first dose should be taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse and the second dose, 12 hours later.

There are two types of emergency oral contraception that are currently marketed for that purpose: Preven and Plan B. Preven is a combination of the hormones estrogen and protestin, and Plan B consists of progestin only.

In France, a progestin-only emergency contraceptive identical to Plan B is available "behind the counter," meaning that it is not on the shelf, but it is available without a prescription by asking a pharmacist. It is also available through high school or junior high school nurses. Emergency contraception is truly available over the counter in Norway.

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