Position Papers

FDA tries to divide women by age to deny us our rights!

MORNING-AFTER PILL - Age restrictions restrict all women

Jenny Brown, Gainesville Women’s Liberation, 8/31/04

"Because no one else [except the Women’s Liberation Movement] is going to cry out against these restrictions, it is up to feminists to make the strongest and most precise demands upon the lawmakers—who ostensibly exist to serve us. We will not accept insults and call them "steps in the right direction." Lucinda Cisler, 1970 1 

It is obvious to most people that the current prescription-only status of the Morning-After Pill must be changed.  It requires women to get (and pay for) a doctor’s appointment, which is a major obstacle for a drug most effective to prevent pregnancy when taken within 24 hours and fairly effective up to 72 hours after sex.

The FDA could not deny this logic.  Nor could they blatantly go against the recommendation of their advisory panels, which last December voted 23 to 4 to approve the drug for over the counter sales.

So when the FDA denied the application to make Plan B (the Morning-After Pill) an over the counter medicine, they used the reasoning that young women (under 16) would be able to buy it, and they claimed that Barr, the manufacturer, had not submitted sufficient studies of its safety in this age group.

Sending the application back to Barr, the FDA suggested that the company either conduct such studies, or create a way that women under 16 could be restricted from buying the drug, and could only have access to it by getting a Doctor’s prescription.

Following the FDA’s suggestion, Barr has submitted an amended application, proposing that sales to women under 16 would be restricted to prescription-only.

The age restriction is not only insulting and oppressive to young women who want to control their reproduction;  it forces all women to be carded for a perfectly safe form of birth control. Not only is this medically unnecessary but it only serves to put women’s reproductive decisions [or rights?] in someone else’s hands. Why should  a pharmacist or anyone else have control over our access to MAP?

Some pharmacists (just like some doctors) are an obstacle to getting the Morning-After Pill:
Pharmacists are not necessarily knowledgeable about the Morning-After Pill.
In studies conducted in New York and Pennsylvania, pharmacists had alarmingly little knowledge of the Morning-After Pill, and many disseminated misinformation about it. In a 2003 survey of 315 Pennsylvania pharmacists:

--13 percent of the pharmacists incorrectly stated the time parameters for using emergency contraception.

--5 percent said it was not available in the United States.

--28 percent did not know a brand name.

--13 percent confused emergency contraception with the abortion pill (RU-486) or thought it caused an abortion.2

Women know that often when we reveal that we have had sex we are stigmatized as a "slut."  This is especially prevalent against young women and unmarried women.  Men face no such stigma, although they often perpetuate it against women.  Requiring women to reveal the details of sexual activity to a pharmacist--who may be a stranger, or worse, an acquaintance--is humiliating and unnecessary unless there is an overwhelming safety reason.  There isn’t, according to the 60 organizations, including the American Medical Association, that support over-the-counter status.

Some pharmacists will refuse to dispense the Morning-After Pill because of personal religious beliefs.

In 1991, feminists discovered that a pharmacist at the infirmary at the University of Florida in Gainesville was refusing to fill women’s prescriptions for the Morning-After Pill.  Feminists protested and the university was eventually forced to ask for his resignation.  But there was evidently still a problem as the University then had to institute a system to call another pharmacist if the pharmacist on duty refused to fill these prescriptions.

How widespread is this problem?  A 2003 survey of Pennsylvania pharmacists reported in noted that of the 65% of  "pharmacists surveyed who could not fill a same-day prescription, 7 percent cited personal beliefs as the reason, while 6 percent said it was against store policy."3  

There is even an organization, Pharmacists for Life International, founded by pharmacists who refused to fill women’s prescriptions for oral contraceptives "because they believed they cause abortion," according to a 2002 article by Patti Miller.  "The organization... has been effective in  expanding the right of health professionals to refuse to provide reproductive health services such as contraception and emergency contraception. The president of PFLI is Karen Brauer, a pharmacist who was fired by Kmart in 1996 after she lied to a patient that an oral contraceptive was out of stock to avoid filling a prescription."4   


The age restriction has bad effects for all women, not just women under 16 who are forced to try to make and pay for a doctor’s appointment, obtain a prescription, and fill it in the short time window the drug is effective.  In fact, it opens women up to more unnecessary gatekeepers who will be able to deny our access to the Morning-After Pill.

The Bush administration and their appointees at the FDA are trying to use the red herring that young women will use the Morning-After Pill and that it might not be safe for them.  But the FDA’s own advisory panels agreed that women under 16 don’t have a different biology from women over 16.  That’s why they voted 23 to 4  for the U.S. to join the dozens of other countries that already provide women access to this safe backup birth control method without restriction.

The FDA’s concern for young women’s safety is touching, but not convincing, from an agency that has repeatedly approved new, unsafe drugs and then has to withdraw them from the market after people suffer harm.5 

The Morning-After Pill, on the other hand, is not new--doctors have been prescribing it since the 70s--and it was described by one of the FDA’s advisory panelists as "the safest drug to come before this committee" in her tenure there.

The FDA’s concern is clearly not with the safety of young women, but with the ongoing Bush administration agenda of blocking women’s control of their own reproduction.  If young women are blocked from getting an after-sex contraceptive, they are likely to become pregnant, which does carry serious health risks.

The effect of the age restriction will be to promote pregnancy and childbearing among young teens. If you are old enough to be pregnant, you are old enough to decide not to be pregnant.

If we allow them to pit us against each other by age we will lose the chance to get what we really want, Morning After Pill over the counter for all women.

We say "ALL OF US OR NONE."  We won’t accept the insult that young women are irresponsible when we try to obtain after-sex birth control.  That is us taking responsibility.

What’s irresponsible is an administration that won’t promote condoms, pushes abstinence education instead of real sex education and condom use, and restricts birth control options rather than expanding them.

We, women of all ages, say no to the FDA’s insults.  We want the Morning After Pill over the counter now with NO RESTRICTIONS.

**For the feminist history turning down half-steps on abortion rights in favor of full freedom, visit the Redstockings Women’s Liberation Archives for Action, www.redstockings.org 



1. From "Abortion Law Repeal (Sort of): A Warning to Women." Lucinda Cisler was chair of the NOW Taskforce on Reproduction and Its Control (1969-1971) and founder and first secretary of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), now the National Abortion Rights Action League.

2. ("Study: Pharmacists not informed on morning-after pill," Marie McCullough Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 21, 2003.)

3. The October 2003 issue of the journal Contraception ("Study: Pharmacists not informed on morning-after pill," Marie McCullough Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 21, 2003.)

4. (Patti Miller, "Do No Harm: Far-Right Medical Groups and Religion Don’t Mix," full article available at: www.rcrc.org/news/commentary/do_no_harm.htm)

5. (Public Citizen Health Research Group reports that 50% of new drugs put on the market are withdrawn within 5 years due to safety issues.)

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