Monday, February 27, 2006

States' Tug of War on Plan B

Nearly every state is or soon will be wrestling with legislation that would expand or restrict access of the "morning-after" pill.

The makers of the morning-after pill, known commercially as Plan B, asked the FDA for the right to sell the drug over the counter in April 2003, four years after it was first approved for use. The agency's staff and an advisory panel strongly favored the application, saying that unprotected sex often occurs when it is difficult to get a doctor's prescription. They said that easier and faster access to the drug would reduce the number of abortions.

More than 60 bills have been filed in state legislatures already this year; the resulting tug of war is creating an availability map for the pill that looks increasingly similar to the map of "red states" and "blue states" in the past two presidential elections -- with increased access in the blue states and greater restrictions in the red ones.

Some bills expand access -- in Maryland, New York, Kentucky and Illinois specially trained pharmacists would have the right to dispense emergency contraception without a prescription. Other bills require pharmacies to stock and distribute the drug, and to ensure that the pill is made available to women who come into emergency rooms after a sexual assault.

But some bills would make it more difficult for many women to get emergency contraception, which is effective for only 72 hours after a woman experiences a contraceptive failure or unprotected sex. Legislation in New Hampshire, for instance, would require parental notification before the drug is dispensed, and more than 20 other states will consider bills that give pharmacies the right not to stock the drug and pharmacists the right not to dispense it, even to women with valid prescriptions.

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