U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius may want to rethink her decision to keep age restrictions on emergency contraception after recently released research indicated that many women are being illegally denied the medication.


U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) chief Margaret Hamburg had told reporters that she backed lifting the age restrictions for teens over the age of 12, but was overruled by Sebelius earlier this month.

Research released Monday by the Journal of the American Medical Association -- or JAMA -- suggests that many women, who are legally able to buy emergency contraception, are being told by pharmacies that they aren't old enough to buy it without a prescription or that the drug isn't available at all.

Female research assistants posing as 17-year-olds called every commercial pharmacy in Nashville, Tennessee; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Oregon. They found that 23.7 percent of pharmacies in low-income neighborhoods claimed that women could not obtain the morning-after pill under any circumstances regardless of age. This was only true of 14.6 percent of pharmacies in affluent neighborhoods.

Of the low-income pharmacies where the drug was not "hidden," half gave the wrong age requirements for purchasing it, almost always indicating that callers would have to be older than legally necessary. In more affluent neighborhoods, pharmacies gave the correct age requirements 62.8 percent of the time.

The Accidental Economist's Aaron Carroll noted that a disproportionate number of teen pregnancies occur in lower-income neighborhoods.

"All of this would be improved if the drug were just known to be available over-the-counter for everyone," Carroll wrote.

President Barack Obama has said that while he did not get involved in the process keeping age restrictions for Plan B emergency contraception, he backs Sebelius' decision.

"And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going to a drug store should be able to — alongside bubblegum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect," Obama explained at a press conference.

By way of comparison, Tylenol — among many analgesics, antihistamines, decongestants and cough suppresants — is available over the counter to children of all ages, despite the fact that overdoses can cause liver damage and even death.

Former Bush-era FDA official Dr. Susan Wood has called Plan B "safer than Tylenol."

(H/T: Mother Jones)