Plan B denied: Emergency contraception comes under fire
It was late spring when Kim Simmons approached the Kmart pharmacy seeking the over-the-counter emergency contraceptive Plan B. In her 40s and the mother of a 22-year-old son, Simmons says she and her boyfriend practiced safe sex but had experienced a prior night condom failure that Simmons feared could put her health in jeopardy.
"If I become pregnant, it could kill me," says Simmons, citing an existing medical condition.
What began as mild embarrassment over the $40 purchase soon turned to anger as the pharmacist on duty refused to ring up her purchase.
"He said, 'I'm not going to sell it to you,'" Simmons recalls of pharmacist Kevin Wright, who, Simmons says, described himself as a "conscientious objector."
"He told me there were plenty of other stores I could get it," says Simmons, who left Kmart and purchased the drug across the street at Kroger. Months later, however, she remains outraged.
"He was trying to control my body," says Simmons. "I would never want to have an abortion, but by him denying me [Plan B], I could have been faced with that decision."
Citing corporate policy, Wright declined comment, but according to Illinois-based Kmart corporate spokesperson Kimberly Freely, Kmart– like other pharmacies– allows its pharmacists to decline the sales of any medications to which they object on moral or religious grounds as long as they direct the customer to a another pharmacist or employee in the store who can make the sale. Freely says that Virginia law requires that the customer be able to purchase a lawful product at the store if it's in stock.
"We're aware of the situation and have handled it," says Freely, declining to reveal if Wright faced any sanctions.
If Wright is pro-life, it may be understandable why he'd object to RU-486, a drug that aborts early pregnancies and which the FDA has associated with over 2,000 adverse events including a possible role in 14 deaths. But why would he object to Plan B, which aims to prevent pregnancy from occurring?
It turns out that Wright isn't the only one with objections. A new radio ad by the pro-life Pregnancy Centers of Central Virginia urges women who fear they may become pregnant after unprotected sex to forgo buying Plan B– at least until they've come in for a consultation with one of the Pregnancy Centers volunteer counselors.
One of the frequently stated goals of the Pregnancy Centers is preventing abortions, so why dissuade women from Plan B, which has been widely lauded for safety and efficacy at preventing pregnancy– but only if taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse?
One objection to Plan B, says Ron Schneider, the Centers' executive director, is the lack of physician oversight for what is essentially a high dose of the hormones found in traditional birth-control pills.
"You need a prescription to take birth control," says Schneider, "and this is 10 to 15 times the strength of birth control pills."
He also fears that some women may use Plan B far more frequently than the monthly maximum the label suggests, and he notes, "The same act that may get you pregnant may have exposed you to an STD."
Perhaps most importantly for pro-lifers, Schneider says, is that one way Plan B may work is by preventing the implantation of an already fertilized egg– past the point at which Schneider and other pro-lifers believe life has begun.
"Women need to understand this," he says.
Such objections to Plan B are "confusing" to Melissa Reed, vice president for Planned Parenthood Health Systems, which operates clinics in Charlottesville, Roanoke, and Blacksburg.
"Plan B does not end or hurt a pregnancy if it's already in process," says Reed, who, like many others in the medical community, define "conception" as occurring when a fertilized egg implants.
Reed sees the FDA's decision to allow Plan B to be sold over-the-counter as a "tremendous benefit," since the time it takes to get a doctor's appointment and obtain a prescription could push a woman past the 72-hour efficacy window. Schneider, however, stands by the Centers' position of cautioning women on the alleged risks of Plan B.
"We just want women to be able to make informed decisions," he says.
Simmons says that on her trip to Kmart, she was making an informed decision– and she objects to someone intervening.
"Women should know they may not want to come to Kmart," she says, "because someone's going to tell them what they can and cannot do with their bodies."