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'Morning after' pill debate ignited by ruling

| Saturday, April 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
JC Schisler | Tribune-Review
A one-dose package of Plan B - One Step is offered at pharmacies like the one shown here inside the Lebanon Shops Pharmacy Friday, April 19, 2012. The impending availability of emergency contraception, the so-called “morning-after pill,” to girls younger than 17 without a prescription is being lauded by reproductive rights advocates and medical associations nationwide as progress based on science, not politics.Some local individuals and groups, however, are taking issue with the federal judge’s April 5 ruling that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lift the age restriction emergency contraception containing the hormone levonorgestrel, such as the Plan B One-Step brand, by May 5.

Nadirah Valentine and Trazy Jordan disagree about the benefits of making the “morning after” pill available without prescriptions to girls younger than 17, as a federal judge ordered this month.

Access to emergency contraception might make teenagers more likely to engage in risky behavior, said Trazy, 15.

The McKeesport teens participated in a Focus on Kids workshop run by Downtown-based Adagio Health Inc., a nonprofit provider of health services and education. The girls agree that parents should talk to their children.

“Some parents don't know what's going on,” said Nadirah, 14.

Reproductive rights advocates lauded U.S. District Court Judge Edward Korman's April 5 order that the Food and Drug Administration lift age restrictions nationwide on emergency contraception containing the hormone levonorgestrel, saying it would improve access for all women.

Some groups and parents cite concerns, however, including possible side effects and potential for unprotected sex among teens.

Janet Walker of Bethel Park wonders how parents could be held legally responsible for children younger than 18 but be exempted from knowing that their children are buying emergency contraception.

“Why are there some things that people choose that we're not responsible for as a parent?” asked Walker, a mother of daughters ages 13, 16 and 18, and a son, 10.

Korman, a federal judge in New York, wrote that “the standard for determining whether contraceptives or any other drug should be available over the counter turns solely on the ability of the consumer to understand how to use the particular drug ‘safely and effectively.' ”

Less than 3 percent of girls younger than 13 are sexually active, he wrote, so the potential for them to seek emergency contraception is “infinitesimal” and ample evidence was presented that adolescents ages 13-16 can understand the label for Plan B One-Step, one brand.

Trazy's mother, Kimberly Jordan, 36, thinks that if parents communicate with their children, the availability of such a product should not be a problem.

“If parents are into their kids' life how they're supposed to be ... they will go to the pharmacy with their daughters,” she said.

But Lynn Garver of Ross, whose daughters are ages 16 and 20, notes, “I don't know that all teenagers really stop to read the fine print on any of this stuff.”

The one-pill Plan B and generic one- and two-pill versions of levonorgestrel-containing products prevent pregnancy by delaying ovulation or preventing fertilization.

Dr. Melanie Gold, a clinical professor of pediatrics at UPMC, said the health effects for teens would be no different than those for adults. Emergency contraception can be taken within 72 to 120 hours after unprotected sex, but it is more effective the sooner it is taken.

It costs $35 to $70 at a pharmacy, said Rebecca Cavanaugh, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, Downtown.

The federal ruling will make the pills available at convenience stores, like other over-the-counter medication, said Carol Petraitis, director of the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

“All the evidence shows us the more choices, the greater the chance of reducing pregnancies,” Petraitis said.

But Dr. Donna Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Holland, Mich., cautions that teens who engage in risky sexual behavior would be less likely to see a doctor.

“It's foolish for 16-year-old girls and younger to have it next to the bubble gum. It is a powerful hormone,” she said.

Pauline Donnelly, a registered nurse who is president of the South Hills Chapter of Allegheny County Pennsylvanians for Human Life, said the focus on expanding access to emergency contraception is misplaced.

“It would serve (teens) more to find out why they feel the need to be sexually active at a young age, or to be promiscuous even, than just giving them hormones,” Donnelly said.

The court gave the FDA the option to lift the age restriction only on Plan B because its manufacturer submitted studies supporting adolescents' understanding of the labeling, said Janet Crepps, senior counsel at the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit that led to Korman's ruling.

The FDA could appeal the ruling. The agency won't comment, spokeswoman Stephanie Yao wrote in an email.

Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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