By Kaziah White & Saskia Levy-Sheon, Interns, Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project
During the summer of 2015, the Clara Bell Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project was asked to help collect data on the availability of emergency contraception (EC) at local pharmacies, as part of a nationwide survey created by the American Society for Emergency Contraception. Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy by stopping ovulation or keeping the egg and sperm from meeting if taken within three to five days after unprotected sex.
We surveyed 65 pharmacies in Philadelphia and on the Main Line. These pharmacies range from the well-stocked store with multiple types of EC to the empty room with a few chairs and a well-meaning pharmacist offering us a “good price” on a generic brand of the morning-after pill.
The survey asks about where EC is located within the store, as well as what brands are available and how much they cost. It also involves asking pharmacy staff if you have to be a certain age to purchase EC and if men can buy it.
The Food and Drug Administration regulations for emergency contraception have rapidly changed within the past few years. One-pill EC is now available over the counter to anyone, regardless of age or gender. However, a number of the pharmacies we visited aren’t consistently following these new regulations. Employees have asked us for ID, or told us that EC can only be purchased by people over age 15, 17 or 18. When employees give out misinformation like this to their customers, it prevents young women from accessing the emergency health care that they need in order to prevent pregnancy. Keeping EC behind the pharmacy counter or in a locked display case in the aisle creates another barrier to access, as young people may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable asking a staff member to retrieve it for them.
The Duvall Project’s new resource for young people seeking health care on their own, Your Body, Your Rights, gives information about emergency contraception and teens’ rights to access it, regardless of age or gender. This information is critical because emergency contraception is often the last step one can take to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. However, conducting this survey showed us that practice hasn’t caught up with policy, and teens might have trouble getting EC at their local pharmacies if the staff there aren’t familiar with the new regulations.
In our research we discovered patterns of access to EC across Philadelphia. About a third of the Center City pharmacies that we visited gave us inaccurate information about age limits. We also found that non-chain pharmacies, which are more prevalent in low-income areas of the city, are far more likely to keep EC behind the pharmacy counter or in locked display cases and to provide inaccurate age limits.
The next step in our process was to create a two-pronged approach to help ensure that teens have access to EC. We started by contacting the pharmacies that provided us with misinformation in order to ask them to train their staff on the new federal regulations around EC. Second, we developed an interactive map to help teens learn which pharmacies make EC is most accessible and affordable. The interactive maps helps guide teenagers to pharmacies that will respect their control over their own bodies and give them the resources that they need. Until all pharmacy practices are in line with current regulations, the EC map will provide a valuable tool for youth to protect their reproductive freedom.