Period Peace

Women Get Their Revolution in Birth Control—Sort Of

As with adjusting the pill to skip or delay their periods, some women have crafted their own emergency contraception by taking several birth control pills at once. An FDA-approved "morning after" pill became available in 1997, but too often those who need it still don't get it. While the FDA is weighing whether to make the pills available over the counter throughout the country, a bill pending in Albany would allow registered nurses and pharmacists in a voluntary state program to supply them to women without a prescription. The Unintended Pregnancy Prevention Act can seem like a no-brainer; if it passes, the state could save $913.3 million dollars on abortions and health care for unintended pregnancies, according to a report last month by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi. But the bill faces an uphill battle in the state senate.

Why aren't all legislators jumping to make contraception easier to get? Unease with anything that has to do with sex and fear of opposition from religious groups are major factors. Worried that emergency contraception might be construed as abortion, some have responded to the advance with the enthusiasm a woman might reserve for an unplanned pregnancy. Just requiring insurers to pay for the stuff makes them squirmy. Though New York State has mandated coverage for FDA-approved contraception since the beginning of the year, most states still do not.

Similar forces are responsible for slowing birth control research. While liability concerns have put off some drug companies, political controversy has also dampened interest in developing more contraceptive products. Although some 38.6 million women use birth control, only two of the 20 biggest pharmaceutical companies are committed to researching contraception. "After the big push in the 1960s, a number of companies have dropped out of the field," explains Jacqueline Darroch, vice president for science at the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

You could say the field of pregnancy prevention became a minefield and that, at least for a while, people stopped walking in it. Viewed that way, the recent progress in contraceptive development can look like bold leaps rather than timid baby steps. Almost a revolution.

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