The Invisible Age Barriers for Plan B

I’ve only ever needed to get Plan B once. When I was on the pill, I was generally good about remembering to take it at the same time every day; I did, however, have a minor freak-out one time when I realized that I had missed a pill and had sex within the last day. I figured it was better to be safe than sorry, so I started looking into how to get a hold of some Plan B.

And here’s where it got weird: Although I thought that it should have been available over the counter, I wasn’t positive — and trying to find out whether it was available turned out to be far more complicated than it should have been. Ultimately I ended up taking myself to my local Planned Parenthood and getting it there. I was in my mid-20s at the time, so age wasn’t an issue — but the fact that I not only didn’t know, and even worse, couldn’t figure out if I could get it over the counter, speaks volumes.

And I am apparently one of many who has dealt with misinformation about Plan B. When it was ruled this past summer that Plan B would finally be available over the counter to any woman who needed it regardless of age, there was a lot of rejoicing – and rightly so. But worryingly, it seems that many teens are still having trouble getting Plan B. Not only that, a disturbingly large number of pharmacists seem to be misinformed about emergency contraception as well. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health this past December, pharmacy staffers often give teens misleading or incorrect information about emergency contraception — which in turn prevents them from getting medication to which they should by law have access.

Lead author of the study Tracy Wilkinson, M.D., is a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. When she noticed a lot of teenagers telling her “weird things about emergency contraception prescriptions” — that pharmacies might refuse to fill one, might confiscate it, or might even deny the existence of an electronic one — she got curious. So she launched an investigation: She had a number of female researchers pose as 17 year olds, having them contact almost 1,000 pharmacies in cities across the country. The researchers asked the pharmacy staff questions about the availability of emergency contraception, the age requirements, and confidentiality. Says Wilkinson, “About 20 percent of the pharmacy staff said that, because the callers identified themselves as teens, the callers couldn’t get [emergency contraception] at all…. Of the remaining 80 percent of respondents, about half of them got the exact age requirement correct and half of them did not.”

Other “facts” the pharmacy staff told the researchers included that they didn’t stock emergency contraception due to institutional policies or personal beliefs; that the teen would need to bring a parent or legal guardian with them to pick up emergency contraception; or that an older friend couldn’t buy it for them. In some cases they were even told that Plan B isn’t sold to men.

All of this is incorrect. And the fact that it’s being circulated as fact is a huge, huge problem.

Plan B was approved for prescription use in the US in 1999. In 2006, it became available over the counter for women 18 and up; then in 2009, the age requirement was dropped to 17. This past July, the age requirement was dropped entirely – but only for Plan B. As it currently stands, Plan B One Step should legally be available over the counter to anyone, no matter how old they are and with no need for photo ID. Other brands, however, are only available without a prescription to teens 17 and up or with a prescription to teens of any age — something which Megan Kavanaugh, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, suspects contributes to the confusion for both pharmacists and teens.

Upon learning of Wilkinson’s study, Laura Kiesel of Salon decided to do a little investigating herself. She called up a dozen pharmacies in a variety of cities, asking whether she could get Plan B, and if she could, how old she’d have to be to get it. Her results? Not terribly encouraging:

“Half of the pharmacies I called didn’t have any brand of emergency contraception in stock. A pharmacist at one of these locations even brusquely informed me that his pharmacy never stocked Plan B and that he didn’t know where I could get it, before abruptly hanging up. When I inquired about the age requirements for Plan B at these pharmacies, the responses I received were all over the map including ‘16,’ ‘17,’ ‘16 or 17,’ ‘17 or 18,’ and even ‘18.’ Only one pharmacist cited the new law in informing me there was no age restriction for the main brand.”


As Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told Kiesel, “When a woman fears she might become pregnant, she needs fast access to emergency contraception, not delays or misinformation at the pharmacy counter. The bottom line is that all women should have accurate information about the full range of contraceptive options and be able to access the best method of emergency contraception for them quickly and without barriers.”

True that. Now what are we going to do about it?

Image: Getty Images