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Experts Call for Easier Access to Emergency Contraception

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Each year, millions of women worldwide get pregnant unintentionally -- most often because they forgot to use their birth control method or because of failure of the method they chose.

Likening emergency contraception to keeping a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, Westhoff says "the reason we have a fire extinguisher in our homes is because accidents do happen, not because people are planning to be careless. We use the same argument about emergency contraception."

Women need to have a back-up plan, she says.

But the way things stand now, she points out, even if a woman has unprotected or inadequately protected sex and knows that there is a solution available, she still has to see her health care provider, get a prescription, go to a pharmacy and get that prescription filled.

Often this is not feasible during the narrow window of opportunity for which emergency contraceptives are most effective, which is soon after unprotected sex, according to Westhoff. "Access is a problem," she says.

Currently, Westhoff skirts the access issue by giving every new patient an undated, advanced prescription for emergency contraceptive pills. "If we had this product available over the counter, women could go to the drug store and get what they need," she says.

Although she was skeptical when she first heard of these products going over the counter, Westhoff says that it is safe because there are no ill effects from taking the pills and they cannot be abused.

Roderick McKenzie, chairman of Gynetics, Inc., the company that launched Preven, says "going over the counter is ultimately necessary to give access to a level that will make significant inroads unto the abysmal rate of unintended pregnancies and the abysmal rate of abortion."

But the road is littered with obstacles, he says. "We continue to think about petitioning the FDA, but it can take two to three years and cost up to $6 million," says McKenzie, whose company plans to introduce a progestin-only emergency contraceptive by 2001.

Contraception guru James Trussel, PhD, a professor of economics and public affairs and a faculty associate at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University in New Jersey, says both companies that make emergency contraception have expressed an intent to seek over-the-counter approval, and yes, it can be a long and costly process.

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