In a 2002 study more than 500 Michigan State students reported having an unplanned pregnancy or unintentionally getting someone pregnant while at school. According to the same study by the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, only 7 percent of students that year had used the morning after pill as a method to prevent pregnancy—a percentage dwarfed by the 53 percent who preferred condoms.
However, in August 2006, the Food and Drug Administration decided to allow emergency contraception to be available nation-wide without a prescription which may change they way students protect themselves.
While there are three different types of emergency contraception, the FDA’s decision pertains only to Plan B, a progestin hormone pill produced by Barr Pharmaceuticals. By the end of 2006, both men and women aged 18 and older will be able to purchase Plan B without a prescription from specially trained and licensed pharmacists.
The effect over-the-counter emergency contraception will have on college campuses is a concern to some because students tend to be highly sexually active.
Dr. Marsha T. Carolan, sex therapist and director of MSU’s Marriage and Family Therapy program, believes the college environment is a major factor in students’ sexual activity.
“Observational evidence [shows] that it does seem to increase during the collegiate years,” she said, “Perhaps due to the freedom from family and household constraints, the eagerness to make friends and fit in, the exposure to dis-inhibitors like alcohol and parties and the manic atmosphere that collegiate sports can incur.”
Sophomore Robert Devual agreed. “Sexual activity definitely increases. In college, there’s drinking and you become more outgoing. Everything just hits you at once and you have a lot more freedom,” he said.
But students are not always safe. In the Public Policy and Social Research study, 14 percent of students said they had been with at least three sexual partners that school year. Yet 37 percent of the students who said they had had vaginal sex in the month before survey had not used a condom in that entire month.
Some believe the students who frequently engage in unprotected sex will soon look to the morning-after pill as their primary method of birth control. But Lori Lamerand, the president-CEO of the Mid-Michigan Planned Parenthood Alliance says the pill was not created for that purpose.
“It should be used if a woman is assaulted or if her birth control didn’t work—it’s for something more serious than ‘I just didn’t feel like using birth control.’” She said.
Many do not believe that just because emergency contraception will be available over the counter, students will be able to get it whenever they want. Barr Pharmaceuticals said they will monitor prescribing patterns and that the over-the-counter version of Plan B will likely not be covered by insurance plans and will cost more. Plan B currently costs an average of $25-$40.
Still, others do not believe the company will be able to truly control pill distribution. There is no limit to the number of times a woman can safely use emergency contraception and skeptics state that cost and regulations will not deter women from getting the pill if they want it. Journalism major Rhonda Ross said high cost would definitely not stop her.
“If the occasion called for it, I would definitely pay,” she said, “I’m too young to have kids. I’m just not ready to have a baby.”
In addition, many independent pregnancy counseling centers offer the pill on a sliding cost scale so that patients with low incomes can still get it. Also, women are allowed—and often encouraged—to buy the pill in bulk so as to have it immediately available for future use. These extra stores, some claim, could quickly lead to a black market where the pill will be available to more people and for a much lower cost.
Yet support for over-the-counter emergency contraception comes from a variety of medical organizations, including the American Medical Association which has been pushing for the decision since 2000. Furthermore, several European countries and nine states in the U.S. (Alaska, California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Vermont and Washington) passed legislature allowing the morning after pill to be sold without a prescription well before the FDA decision. This leads many to believe there will be no significantly negative effects nation-wide. Carolan, for one, does not believe over-the-counter access to the pill will be a major factor in risky sexual activity on campus.
“Sexual behavior and unprotected sex are often due to the lack of decision making, sexual coercion, gender oppression, history of trauma or abuse, and use of substances,” she said, “Sexual activity should be a caring, compassionate, enjoyable activity that is mutually beneficial to both partners. It should be engaged in thoughtfully and with the understanding that sex between two individuals brings with it responsibilities and risks, as well as rewards.”