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US Panel Recommends Approval of Non-Prescription Emergency Contraceptive - 2003-12-17

An advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recommended that an emergency contraceptive used to prevent pregnancies be sold to women without a doctor's prescription. The recommendation was made in the midst of strong disagreement between panel members over whether the contraceptive, known as the "morning after pill," is a form of abortion and whether making it widely available will increase sexual promiscuity.

The contraceptive, marketed as Plan B in the United States, is currently available under a doctor's prescription. The pill ends an unwanted pregnancy by using a form of the synthetic hormone progestin to block ovulation and fertilization of the egg. It can work up to 72 hours after unprotected sexual intercourse, but is most effective within the first 24 hours - hence the name "morning after pill".

An FDA advisory panel voted 23-4 Tuesday to recommend making the morning after pill available to women without a prescription. This would allow it to be sold in pharmacies like aspirin or any other over-the-counter drug.

In advocating the move, Dr. Vivian Dickerson of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told the FDA making emergency contraception freely available will give women more options.

"If we are truly dedicated to lowering the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions in this country, then let's prove it by making emergency contraception available over the counter," she said.

The group Planned Parenthood says the pill could prevent up to half of the three million unintended pregnancies in the United States each year.

But opponents, including religious groups, say that making the pill an over-the-counter drug will encourage sexual promiscuity. Others consider it a form of abortion because it prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

Judy Brown of the American Life League was among those who spoke out against the pill before the FDA panel.

"Emergency contraception is not contraception so-called emergency contraception can by definition abort a child, before that child implants," said Judy Brown. "A human being begins at conception, not at implantation."

The Bush administration opposes abortion and is more conservative on birth control issues than the Clinton administration.

However, the FDA usually follows the recommendations of its advisory panels. It is expected to make a decision on the issue soon.