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Plan B: An Oral History Plan B: An Oral History

Plan B: An Oral History

by Amanda Hess
December 8, 2011

For a drug that becomes less effective every hour it's not taken, the United States sure has dawdled in making emergency contraception readily available to women. After the Food and Drug Administration approved Plan B for prescription use in 1999, the agency has taken its sweet time in making the "morning-after pill" accessible enough for women to actually ingest it within 72 hours of having unexpectedly unprotected sex. Despite research confirming the pill's safety, the agency deliberated for seven years before making it available behind pharmacy counters without a prescription, and then only for women 18 and older.

Today, the FDA turned down an opportunity to fully transition the morning-after pill to drugstore shelves, where it would have been available alongside condoms—allowing women of any age to buy it, no awkward pharmacist check-in or ID verification required. So men and women on either side of the broken condom must continue to navigate the strange barriers to accessing the drug—including closed clinics, widespread misinformation, and pharmacist sass. Below, some of GOOD's favorite sexually active women shared their sad, hilarious, and uplifting attempts to secure emergency contraception over the past decade and a half:

1998. "I actually had a doctor's appointment for the following week, when I was planning to see about starting on the pill for the first time—so of course that was the week my boyfriend and I had a condom mishap. I go to a walk-in clinic [in Canada, where the drug was already available], and a young male doctor listens to the story and prescribes EC—but as he tears the prescription off the pad, he looks at me with utter contempt and says, 'Next time, try the pill.' Then he turns and exits without so much as a goodbye." —Kate Harding

1999: The FDA approves Plan B for prescription use. (A year earlier, it ok'd a similar drug, Preven).

"I was the health rep for my dorm in my sophomore year of college... I found out in detail at health rep training that regular birth control pills could be used for emergency contraception. There wasn't Plan B at the time, I think, so if you went to Health Services they literally just gave you like four birth control pills. There wasn't internet at the time, either. (Ok, now I am lying.)" —Jess Zimmerman

2000: "You couldn't get Plan B without a prescription back when I needed it for the first time, so it was a pretty stressful experience. Until it wasn't. I'll let my 10th grade diary tell you the rest: 'So [my bf] comes back from the bathroom and tells me the condom broke.  He sounds like a little boy, scared, worried, uninformed... I find myself consoling him rather than the other way around. We decide to get the morning-after pill, but I call [clinics], and nobody’s open on Sundays! What is this? A lot of people have sex on Saturdays, how can things not be open?... I called [my best friend] Sarah, and since I trust her mother, she told her mother and she is calling her doctor so that she might get a prescription.  God, they should have them at Rite Aid or something, this is horrible waiting... Okay, this is 3 hours later, and I took the pill. Also, my mother now knows I have sex.'" —Nona Willis Aronowitz

"It hadn't been a good month: I was on the pill, but had been sick (so I puked one up) and gotten way too drunk (ditto), rendering my pill virtually useless by the time I fell into bed with my ex. We used condoms, as we would've anyway, but the first one ripped and naturally he didn't notice until after he orgasmed. Recriminations flew: why didn't he notice? Why hadn't I been better about the pill? Eventually, we decided I had to get the morning after pill the next morning. But in 2000, emergency contraception still required a prescription, which required a doctor, which required a doctor's visit which I couldn't get for at least a week. I spent an hour calling every place in NYC that might carry it, only to get rebuffed at every turn, and I just sort of sat in my bed cross-legged and crying, fresh out of ideas. I called my hometown gyno—four hours north by train and another 30 minutes west by a car I didn't have. She tried to call in a prescription for me, but every pharmacy we tried didn't stock it yet. And there was no way for me to get home, get to her office, get the morning after pill, and get to work the next morning, and no way not to tell my parents. So she called in a prescription for the same birth control pills on which EC was then based, and carefully walked me through how to use them were I to be using them in lieu of EC. The first batch I puked up (yes, there's a pattern), so I had to start from scratch, downing them with Dramamine and on a full stomach. I didn't get pregnant with my ex's spawn (thankfully, as he marked the day I bled by having a one-night stand and telling me about it) and I haven't had to use it since. But goodness knows it would've been an easier few days if I could've walked in and bought it next to the condoms." —Megan Carpentier

2001: A coalition of medical groups files a petition with the FDA, asking that the drug be made available over the counter without a prescription.

"I was young, and really bad at negotiating my own needs sexually, so I played 'just the tip' with a shitty boyfriend who apparently didn't need much more than the tip, all told. I got my roommate to drive me over an hour away to a clinic. Then, right after I got my prescription from a male doctor, a woman doctor came up to me and told me that I would have to leave the premises, because I had asked for 'a form of abortion,' and—and I quote—'I should have kept my legs together.' I still got the pill, though, mainly because once she'd thrown me out I stood in the parking lot cursing until somebody asked me what the matter was." Sady Doyle

2003: Two FDA advisory committees recommend that Plan B be made available over the counter to all age groups.

2004: The FDA rejects the idea.

2005: "I was 17. The condom came off. I was on the pill, but I was utterly terrified of unplanned pregnancy. So the next morning, I went to the pharmacy (Plan B has been available over the counter in my state, [Australia's] New South Wales, for quite some time now). I told the pharmacist what had happened and she asked me if I'd been taking my pill on time, and said that that if I had, there was nothing to worry about. Then she stopped, looked at my stricken face, and said, 'I'll give it to you just in case.' I know—and I knew then—how the pill works. I knew I had nothing to worry about. But I was still worried out of my goddamn mind. And I'm as grateful today as I was seven years ago that Plan B was readily available, and that that pharmacist understood how I was feeling." Chloe Angyal

2006: The FDA approves the sale of Plan B over the counter for women age 18 and over.

"After a condom broke in college, I went to the CVS pharmacy for Plan B. The pharmacist mumbled something under his breath as he checked my ID, then slowly shook his head as he rang up the sale. (Later, at the same CVS, an employee would unlock a glass box, hand me a pregnancy test, and point helpfully to the nearby condoms. "Should have used these," he told me). I took the test in the bathroom of the gay bar down the street. It was negative. Thanks for everything, Plan B! Thanks for nothing, CVS." Amanda Hess

2008. "When I went to get Plan B as a 30-year-old, I was actually kind of stoked to be carded. Terrible, I know." Jessica Valenti 

2009: Plan B is made available over the counter to 17-year-olds.

"I woke up on New Years Day, painfully hungover, and over breakfast, pieced together what had happened the night before. I couldn't remember anything after about 1 a.m. After a couple of cups of coffee, the guy I was sleeping with fessed up that he wasn't quite sure if he had pulled out during sex—sex that I couldn't remember. I remember taking the bus home and then spending an hour mentally preparing myself for the trip across the street to CVS. I had never used Plan B before and was nervous about vocalizing what I needed to the pharmacist. I practiced asking for it out loud 'Can I have Plan B please?' Was it a dose of Plan B? A packet? I felt like such a cliche, asking for Plan B on New Years Day." —Melissa

Present day: "We do see lots of boxes of Plan B and Next Choice in the trash can in the bathroom closest to our pharmacy on Mondays. We sell more when we lose a football game than when we win." —A university sex educator

"It took me a long time to figure out that Plan B was available over-the-counter at Planned Parenthood. When that happened—around instance number three—getting it became, technically, a cinch." —Sady Doyle

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ollografik