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Virginian-Pilot (US), September 9, 2007

Emergency contraception still hard to get year later

By BETH LEVIN

One year ago last month, we celebrated the FDA's long-awaited decision to make emergency contraception available over the counter for women 18 and older. EC is a safe, effective backup birth control option that every woman should have in her medicine cabinet.

EC contains only progesterone, a naturally occurring hormone that is used routinely in pregnancy to prevent miscarriage and to treat pre-term labor. But taken before a pregnancy, EC is a second chance to prevent a pregnancy. It is Plan B when the original plan fails.

Many people call EC the morning-after pill. But that's a misnomer since it's now been proven effective for 72 hours after unprotected sex.

Unfortunately, the reality in the year 2007 is that too many women are still being denied access to this essential form of contraception -- and a second chance to prevent an unintended pregnancy. They are scared away from its use by misinformation, lack of awareness or obstacles at some pharmacies.

These pharmacy refusals are putting women's health and safety at risk. "Refuse and refer" policies don't work. Many women in rural Virginia live far away from the next pharmacy.

When it comes to time-sensitive medications like EC, it's even more important that women receive the necessary medication immediately, without discrimination or delay. Refusal clauses are also an open initiation to refuse to fill any valid, legal prescription by any pharmacist.

Since 2002, legislation has been introduced every year in Virginia to restrict access to EC, including a requirement of parental notification for use by teens, prohibiting EC on college campuses and a provision to allow a pharmacist to refuse to fill a valid prescription.

Considering the high teen pregnancy rate and non-marital birth rate in Virginia, this is especially disturbing. My patients began returning from college in 2002 to tell me many shocking and unfortunate stories about being denied birth control at their college health clinics or at the local pharmacy near their college. When I called to check, I learned they were telling the truth.

Birth control is basic health care. Most American women have used it during their lifetimes. We women know that using birth control is not an immoral decision. It is often the most moral decision we ever make.

Luckily, women can always turn to Planned Parenthood for birth control, including EC. Last year alone, Planned Parenthood distributed more than 1.2 million EC kits nationwide. Planned Parenthood has gone to the state legislature to get the message out: Put prevention first.

In 2007, any woman should be able to walk into any pharmacy, anywhere in the country, and get EC and any other FDA-approved birth control method without discrimination or delay. And it's time for our legislatures, especially the Virginia legislature, to help women to protect their rights.

Beth Levin, M.D., is an ob/gyn physician in a private group practice in Suffolk. She is also board chair of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.

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