Emergency Contraception Without a Prescription
Feb. 6, 2001 -- Surprisingly few women in the U.S. know that if they have
unprotected sex they can still avoid pregnancy by using high-dose birth control
within three days. The method is known as emergency contraception or the
'morning after' pill, and women's health advocates are trying to make sure more
women find out about it by putting it where it can't be missed: on the shelf of
your local pharmacy.
This week, the makers of one emergency contraceptive announced
that they have met with the FDA and will follow the rules prescribed by the
agency to get permission to sell the product over the counter. It is currently
only available with a doctor's prescription.
A representative for the company that makes the emergency
contraceptive known as Plan B tells WebMD the product could be on drug store
shelves within about 18 months.
Between now and then, the company must conduct two studies. The
first is to satisfy the FDA that women of all ages and backgrounds can
understand the instructions on how to use it. The other study, to be conducted
in Washington state, will involve women actually using emergency contraception
obtained from a pharmacy without a doctor's prescription.
In Washington, pharmacists have been allowed since 1998 to sell
emergency contraception without a doctor's prescription on an urgent basis.
"We have kind of a living laboratory out there of women who
have been using [emergency contraception] without a prescription and we are
going to be doing actual use studies to mimic [over-the-counter] use in those
pharmacies," says Sharon Camp, PhD, president of Women's Capital
Corporation, which makes Plan B.
Emergency contraception pills like Plan B contain the same
active ingredients as regular birth control pills -- estrogen plus progestin,
or progestin alone -- but in higher doses. They can be used when a condom
breaks, after a sexual assault, or whenever contraception is not used or fails
to work properly. To be effective, the pills must be taken as soon as possible
after the unprotected sexual encounter.
Emergency contraceptive pills interfere with conception, but
they do not work if a woman is already pregnant.
"These pills won't cause an abortion or a miscarriage,"
says Jeffrey Waldman, MD. "If in fact you are pregnant when you take these
pills, they will have no effect. The downside is the few minor side effects
that you might have, like [nausea]. But basically, if you mistook the
medication, the consequences are virtually nil."
Waldman, a California-based ob-gyn who is president of the
medical director's council for Planned Parenthood, says having the product
available on store shelves will provide women with more options than they
"It's not meant to replace contraception on a regular
basis, but in an effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies, it's just another
[option]," he tells WebMD.