By Krista Mahr, TIME
The first time that I asked my GP in Hong Kong for a prescription for birth control pills, she stopped scribbling down her notes in my file and looked up at me. “You don’t need a prescription for that,” she said, bemused. In Hong Kong, as in some other parts of the world, birth control pills are available over the counter; you can pick up your favorite brand in the drug store aisle next to condoms and pregnancy tests. Sitting there in the doctor’s chair, I felt 1) a little guilty of the beloved American habit of assuming U.S. policy is the global norm and 2) a little surprised at being the person in the room with the most conservative notions about contraception.
Then again, who could blame me? This week’s news from Washington once again sets the U.S. apart from a lot of the world on the family planning front. On Thursday, President Barack Obama endorsed the decision of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to overrule the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation that Plan B One-Step, a brand of emergency contraception, be sold without a prescription to people under 17. Currently, the ‘morning after’ pill is only sold over the counter to women and men 17 and older; teenagers 16 and younger have to go to the doctor to get access to the contraceptive. The drug, designed to be used in the first days after sex, is often mistakenly conflated with RU-486, the so-called ‘abortion’ pill, and has been caught up in a political tussle between its advocates in the scientific and reproductive rights community and opponents in the pro-life community since it was first approved by the FDA in 1999. Sebelius’ decision on Dec. 8 was the first time a Health and Human Services Secretary has ever publicly overruled the FDA.
This despite the face that — though nowhere near as popular as The Pill — emergency contraception is being embraced as never before. Emergency contraception, most commonly a dose of the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel that can stop ovulation within three to five days, is legal in over 140 nations, and available over the counter in more than 60 nations. In 2009, the Indian market for emergency contraceptive pills grew 47%, according to Euromonitor International. In a recent government poll in China, nearly half the 40,000 respondents said they prefer emergency contraception to condoms. Since the World Health Organization deemed the emergency oral contraception safe and effective in the mid-1990s, the pill has been gaining popularity in Thailand, Finland, Kenya, Ghana and Mexico. Even in the U.S., despite its political hurdles, the percentage of American women who had used EC more than doubled between 2006 and 2008 to 9.7%, according to a recent study.