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Morning-After Pill Intensifies Internet Prescribing Debate

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Markus explains that if there is a need to see the patient, that will become obvious from the questionnaire patients are required to fill out to get a prescription for the morning-after pill, or emergency contraception. He says emergency contraception is extremely safe -- it prevents an embryo from implanting on the womb wall, thereby preventing pregnancy. It doesn't cause an abortion.

Antiabortion rights groups disagree. They argue that if an embryo has formed, preventing it from developing is tantamount to destroying life.

There also are concerns that online prescribing will make it easier for young women to get these pills, thereby encouraging promiscuity.

"Younger women are our target, although we found that it's actually young adults that use the service the most," Markus says.

The pills, sold as either Plan B or Preven, provide a large dose of contraceptive hormones and must be taken within 72 hours of intercourse. Advocates say that's another argument for having it available online -- it may be difficult to get traditional medical services in time.

Meanwhile, VirtualMedicalGroup.com also is marketing emergency contraception to women. The company charges $74 to write a prescription for emergency contraception and has provided the drug to 128 women.

Planned Parenthood of Chicago has filled 220 prescriptions for emergency contraception since it started its program last December.

However, this may be just the beginning of cyber pharmacies run by docs who never see their patients.

While emergency contraception is considered so safe that dozens of medical groups have asked that the product become available over the counter, the question of whether or not to prescribe drugs without seeing a doctor first is still hotly debated.

Some prescriptions, Malik argues, don't always require a doctor visit. For example, she suggests there's no reason for a woman to go to the doctor for hair removal treatment when the evaluation can be handled conveniently online.

But Wolfe warns that many web sites are inadequately screened by state medical and pharmacy boards. "Should doctors and pharmacists who are lending their names to Internet drug sites be prosecuted? ... That's the larger issue," Wolfe says.

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