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Megan Carlson/MEDILL

Plan B is one type of emergency contraception, which can prevent unintended pregnancy when taken after unprotected sex.

Teens, experts applaud order to send Plan B over-the-counter for youth under 17

by Megan Carlson
April 10, 2013

Sexually-active teens no longer need a doctor's prescription to buy the “morning-after” pill at the corner drug store.

Local teens are breathing a sigh of relief after a federal judge struck down a 2011 decision Friday that banned the sale of the morning-after pill (commonly called Plan B, after the most popular name-brand) to youth under the age of 17 without a prescription. 

“People nowadays are still having unprotected sex,” said Stephanie Sotelo, 16, a sophomore at Lake View High School.  “There's a lot of people who are getting pregnant in our school so I think it's a good idea.”

For many teens, getting a prescription frequently means involving a parent.

“Me and my mom aren't that close and if I wanted to be protected, I would of course want to get Plan B,” said Anne St. Laurent, 15, a freshman at Lake View High School who discussed the matter outside of school grounds. 

Classmates said that teenagers are reluctant to admit to teachers, parents and doctors that they are at risk of an unintended pregnancy.

In 2011, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overturned U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations to lift age restrictions on emergency contraception.

“Why would you rather get pregnant and have the baby and mess up your whole life?” said Paula Cardenas, 15, also a student at Lake View. “It's a good idea to go ahead and buy it instead of somebody older making you uncomfortable and telling you, 'Oh, don't do that because it's not good.'”

Taking the morning-after pill is as “safe for teens as it is for any woman of reproductive age,” according to Dr. Allison Cowett, a gynecologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The morning-after pill works by delaying female ovulation long enough to prevent a sperm (which can live inside the female genital track for up to five days) from fertilizing an egg, Cowett said.  Women at risk of an unintended pregnancy can take the pill up to five days after unprotected sex, she said, though its efficacy decreases the longer they wait. 

If ovulation has already occurred, and a zygote-- a fertilized egg-- has formed, the pill will not work.

Allowing girls under 17 to bypass the time-consuming process of obtaining a prescription could prevent unintended pregnancies, according to Brigid Leahy, the director of government relations at Planned Parenthood of Illinois.

Even adults will benefit, Leahy said, as emergency contraception may move from behind the pharmacy counter to the aisles where women can access it during pharmacy off-hours.

Critics are concerned that access to emergency contraception could lead to unsafe decisions.

“Teens are impulsive and obviously lacking in maturity,” said Laurie Higgins, cultural analyst at the Illinois Family Institute, a nonprofit ministry that promotes family values. “With this easy access, I think it will encourage irresponsible sexual behavior” which could lead to increased sexually-transmitted infections.

But for teens at Lake View High School, access to Plan B could provide a necessary last resort. 

“It is called Plan B for a reason,” said St. Laurent.

Steven Gillenwater, program director at the Rush Adolescent Family Center in Chicago, said that access to emergency contraception is unlikely to increase risky behavior. 

“When we have people put on seat belts, we don't expect they're going to drive more recklessly,” he said.  “Just because they have Plan B, teens aren't going to have more sex.” 

The morning-after pill is “not going to put your daughter's health at risk,” Leahy tells worried parents.  “The important thing is we give her the tools to prevent a pregnancy when she is not ready for it.”