Morning-after pill sparks debate

Pharmacist Bob Addison of Fort Sumner leads the Emergency Contraception seminar at Plains Regional Medical Center. (Staff photo: Eric Kluth)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

It wasn’t until Joan Sanford held her baby daughter in her arms that her world-view, and pro-choice convictions, crystallized.

“Something about having a daughter made me feel my responsibility toward working to provide women with more choices,” Sanford said. “I wanted to make sure that she had all or more of the opportunities I had.”

Ever since, the Albuquerque resident has been an advocate for the protection and expansion of birth control rights for women. Her daughter, and the daughters of countless other women, Sanford says, need easy access to all birth control methods. Proof, she says, can be found in statistics. According to a 2000 New Mexico Department of Health surveillance report, 40 percent of 2,210 live births in New Mexico were unwanted.

Sanford began her pro-choice crusade as a volunteer telephone operator. She is now the director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, one branch of an umbrella assembly of 18 denominations and 40 organizations, formed in 1973 to counter the threatened reversal of Roe vs. Wade.

The reproduction debate, partly because of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, has landed on the doorstep of local pharmacists. They are now able to lawfully distribute emergency contraceptives, or the “morning-after pill,” without a prescription, pending certification.

New Mexico law, passed in 1978, allows provision of contraception without parental consent, regardless of the age of the patient, with one speed bump — the age of consent to sexual activity in the state is 13, so pharmacists must notify authorities if a person under that age attempts to purchase contraceptives.

Sanford and company sponsored a three-hour long certification session for eight local pharmacists and pharmacist technicians Saturday at Plains Regional Medical Center.

“We felt it was important — as a faith-based organization — to put our money where our mouth is and sponsor this training,” Sanford said. It is the first training session the New Mexico coalition has sponsored, and the first held in the eastern region of the state.

Clovis, Sanford said, was the ideal place to start.

“In rural areas,” she explained, “health care is often limited. With emergency contraceptives there is a time limit, so if you have to find a doctor, find a pharmacy, the window for use could close.”

The pills are most effective when taken as soon as possible after sex — effectiveness significantly narrows 72 hours after unprotected sex, and the pill should not be taken any later than five days after sex, according to research.

Leading Saturday’s workshop was pharmacist Bob Addison, a member of the New Mexico Pharmacists Association. Addison said emergency contraception passed for use by the FDA, called Plan B, is widely misunderstood, by the public and many pharmacists alike.

“The morning-after-pill (Plan B) is like taking a turbo charge of birth control (oral contraceptives),” Addison said, racing on to explain that Plan B does not interrupt or harm an established pregnancy, but rather inhibits ovulation, fertilization and implantation of eggs.

It is the misconception that the pills are abortive-inducing, like the highly controversial RU-486 pill, that fuels some pharmacists’ refusal to distribute the pills, Addison said. However, a large number of those against pharmaceutical distribution of the contraceptives know how the pill works, yet their fears are still mountainous.

Some argue that making the pills more accessible encourages promiscuity, akin to giving youth the green light when it comes to having sex.

In the future, pharmacists could also be cut from the equation if Plan B is sold over-the-counter. The FDA Plan B Web site reads, “Wide availability of safe and effective contraceptives is important to public health. We look forward to working (on)… making this product (Plan B) available without a prescription.”

That prospect scares Jamie Baker, a Clovis mother to three daughters, the eldest 16 years old. If pharmacists and doctors are cut from the picture, she said, parents could be, too.

“Parents need to know of the actions of their children until they reach the age of 18,” said Baker, her daughters gathered around her in the medicine aisle of Wal-Mart. Baker also believes in abstinence only education in schools.

“Instead of promoting pills,” said 33-year-old Felicia Chavez, a self-described Catholic-Christian and staunch pro-lifer, “we should be educating young people about taking care of their bodies.”

Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church Frank Sherman is by some accounts an oddity, a highly religious man who supports women’s birth control rights. He says that those who try to prevent the sale of the morning-after pill “have a narrow concept of what is right and wrong.”

“What a lot people don’t realize,” Sherman said, “is that by all this, you cut down the need for the same women to later on have an abortion. Which is better — to nip it in the bud or let it go further down the road and have an abortion later?”