A Primer on Plan B

Here is the my VUE column that ran last week. The on-line version doesn't seem to be available so I'm reposting it here.

I was cruising the family planning aisle at my local Shopper’s the other day and I noticed something I’d never seen before. Plan B, the emergency contraceptive pill was right there next to the condoms and lube. I know that Plan B has been available in drugstores in Alberta for some time but this was the first time I had actually noticed it on the shelf. It’s much easier to get a hold of than most people think.

We are exposed to a lot of contradictory information about emergency contraception. There are vocal opponents of it who give a misleading picture of what is actually is. We also get a lot of news from the United States where the rules around and access to contraception are quite different than in Canada. It's easy to get confused about how it all works at home. I went digging to find out the truth about Plan B in Alberta and here's what I found.

First of all, Plan B is an emergency contraception pill. If it is taken within 72 hours after sex it greatly reduces the chance of a pregnancy. It acts by preventing ovulation, or by preventing fertilization or implantation of a fertilized egg if ovulation already happened. It does not cause abortions. RU-486 is the pill that causes abortion. RU-486 is only available through a physician must be administered under a doctor's care. Plan B is something entirely different. It can be taken alone at home and has very few side effects.
Plan B was in the news in December because the US Secretary of Health and Human Services overruled the FDA’s recommendation to make Plan B available to any woman of any age without a prescription. In the United States, you have to be 17 or older to get Plan B over the counter. If you are younger, you need a doctor’s prescription. This is not the case here. In 2008, Canada became the fifth country in the world to approve over the counter status for Plan B - meaning you can get it without a prescription and there is no consultation with a pharmacist required. It's available this way in every province except Saskatchewan, where it is kept behind the counter, and Quebec, where a prescription is required.

I have a friend who found herself in need of Plan B this summer. In spite of her fairly extensive knowledge of birth control, she realized, when the need suddenly arose, that she didn't know anything about emergency contraception. She went to the nearest pharmacy and asked for it. The pharmacist got it for her and explained how to use it and that was it. She was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get.

Plan B costs about $40 at a drugstore. In Edmonton, you can get it for a reduced cost at the Birth Control Centre and the STI Clinic. At the STI clinic, the cost is $10. They will even waive the cost in rare cases for someone that is completely unable to pay. The STI clinic is a busy place though and they don't take appointments so you need to get there early in the morning to get the best chance of getting in.

It's odd to me that there is still such an aura of secrecy and controversy around Plan B. Sometimes condoms break or slip off and it's all too easy to forget to take a birth control pill. Plan B gives women who do use contraception an effective backup when their methods fail. It offers a viable option for women in abusive relationships who may not have control over their birth control choices and for women who have been sexually assaulted. Far from being a method for the irresponsible, as I so often hear, it seems to me that Plan B is a very responsible choice. Fortunately, it is one that Albertan women are able to make for themselves.