Yesterday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius rejected the decision made by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to make emergency contraception (EC)–often known as Plan B, after the drug brand name Plan B One-Step–available to women of all ages without a prescription. This decision will maintain a harsh status quo for young women, who were excluded when EC was made available to women aged 17+ without a prescription in 2009 and whose likelihood to be uninsured make it extremely burdensome, if not impossible, for them to obtain a prescription for EC within the limited timeframe after intercourse during which EC is effective.
Because of immigration status, lack of insurance, residence in rural areas, and other structural barriers to accessing health care and services, young Latinas will be particularly affected by failures to increase access to EC, which represents only the latest instance of mixed messages sent to women about their rights and place in society. Latina teens are pregnant at higher rates than their peers, and the pregnancy rate for young Latinas has fallen more slowly than for other teen populations. In 2005, over 230,000 women aged 15-17 became pregnant and over half of them gave birth; in the same year, 15,000 young women under the age of 15 became pregnant, over 40% of whom gave birth.
This is the case because not only can many young women not access Plan B, but also because they also are not presented with a Plan A. Empirical studies document higher pregnancy rates in schools with abstinence-only sex education, yet many states do not acknowledge this fact or are just starting to. For instance, Texas, a state in which Latinos comprise over one-third of the population, has long been a devotee of abstinence-only sex education. Recent gains, though small, in abstinence-plus education are cause for celebration, but are far from enough to reverse years of failing to ensure that young women have comprehensive evidence-based sex education.
Although not a substitution for comprehensive sex education, another victory in helping ensure that Latinas of all ages are able to control their bodies came in the form of a regulation HHS promoted in August 2011 related to preventive care under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Being able to control one’s fertility is more than an issue of choice, freedom, or autonomy: it’s a health issue. In fact, HHS recognized it as such, when it promoted a regulation providing co-pay-free access to contraception as part of the preventive care package under the ACA.
We commend HHS’ work on numerous initiatives that positively affect Latinas’ reproductive health, from the contraceptive mandate to work on cervical cancer. But it is imperative that the agency, and Secretary Sebelius, recognize that failing to grant young women (ages 16 and younger) prescription-free access to EC is inconsistent with the view that preventing pregnancy is a healthcare issue and inconsistent with the goal that people of all ages and sexes be given the same opportunity to thrive.
You can read the NLIRH media statement on this decision here.
National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health recognizes that reproductive health is a concern for women and girls and strives to ensure that Latinas of all ages can access the resources they need to achieve health, dignity, and justice.