The Food and Drug Administration may soon be offering the Plan B "morning-after" pill to girls of all ages. A federal judge yesterday ordered the agency to reconsider its decision to approve the over-the-counter product only for those over age 18. Within 30 days, the FDA must make Plan B available to 17-year-olds. Beyond that, the judge instructed the agency to review whether to make emergency contraception—which can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex—available without any age restriction.
Reproductive rights activists hailed the ruling. "Today's decision is an important victory that will help increase women's access to contraception," Louise Melling, director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a press release that landed in my inbox. "It is the first step toward ending years of political interference by the FDA regarding Plan B and will give more women the opportunity to prevent an unintended pregnancy."
The problem I have here is in Melling's definition of a "woman." Is a 16-year-old girl a woman? How about a 12-year-old?
The judge lambasted the FDA for an "arbitrary and capricious" decision to impose an age limit on Plan B that was crafted from "political and ideological" forces from within the Bush administration. I'm not sure I agree. While ideology certainly came into play when the FDA kept delaying its decision to make Plan B available over the counter, I'm not convinced the age limit was so arbitrary.
After all, we don't consider girls under a certain age to be capable of consenting when they engage in sexual intercourse, yet somehow we're encouraging them to use Plan B after they have unprotected sex. And age limits on over-the-counter products aren't unheard of. Just ask any 20-year-old trying to buy a six-pack of beer, or a 17-year-old trying to get a pack of cigarettes.
What really worries me, though, is whether a teenage girl can be counted on to use Plan B as it's intended to be taken. The manufacturer's website is pretty frank about the complexities of using this product. It's composed of two pills to be taken 12 hours apart and is supposed to be a backup method of preventing pregnancy, not meant for routine use. That's because it's not as effective as, say, taking a birth control pill every day. More important, it must be taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex or it may not keep you from getting pregnant.
Girls, as well as grown women, also need to think about side effects like nausea, abdominal pain, headache, dizziness, and breast tenderness. And they need to be aware that if their period comes more than a week late, they may be pregnant. What's more, if they have severe abdominal pain along with a missed period, they should seek immediate medical attention because they could have an ectopic pregnancy.
Got all that? Now how about a 12-year-old? Do you think she can get all that too? Didn't think so.