Easier Access to Plan B: Bad for Black Girls?

Experts differ on how the contraception ruling will affect those with the highest teen-pregnancy rate.

Plan B contraceptive displayed at a pharmacy (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Emergency contraception — essentially high-dose birth-control pills often called “the morning-after pill” or by one of its brand names, Plan B — works by postponing ovulation, which prevents sperm from coming in contact with and fertilizing an egg. But Davis believes the long-term health implications of giving high-dose birth-control pills to young teens aren’t known.

“We don’t know enough about these drugs,” she said. “Putting emergency contraception on the shelf beside the cold medicine will tell a lot of people that we do.”

The National Institutes of Health has identified a slight increase in the risk of breast cancer among women who use birth control. But in 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched a comprehensive review of studies examining the safety of emergency contraception. The nation’s drug-safety agency found no evidence of health risks associated with emergency contraception or scientific reason to limit access to those who are 16 or younger.

The drug-safety agency’s findings were so clear that most people watching the issue closely expected the Obama administration to lift the rule banning over-the-counter emergency contraception sales to girls 16 and under. But in December 2011, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s recommendation to make emergency contraception more widely available, saying additional research was needed. About 10 percent of 10- and 11-year-old girls are physically capable of becoming pregnant, Sebelius said at the time. Before making emergency contraception available over the counter, Sebelius wanted to see evidence of the drugs’ effects on young girls.

Critics charged that the administration was simply trying to avoid a political battle over contraception and parental rights during the then-ongoing presidential campaign.

With the election over, the federal court’s ruling seems to have restored the role of science in health policy and public access to emergency contraception, reproductive-rights advocates say. 

“We believed all along that the decision to limit access to emergency contraception was a political one, based on issues of comfort with teens having sex and teens having access to emergency contraception,” said Baruch. “But we know that there is a lot of unintended pregnancy among teens, particularly black and Latina teens. So for them, this is, without question, a victory.”

Editor‘s note: This article has been updated to state that Plan B works by postponing ovulation, which prevents sperm from coming in contact with and fertilizing an egg.

Janell Ross is a reporter based in New York who covers political, social and economic issues.