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Imagine this scenario that untold numbers of women find themselves in each year. Maybe you had unprotected intercourse, or the condom broke, or maybe you accidentally missed taking a birth control pill or two. You don’t want to get pregnant, so you rush to the pharmacy for emergency contraception. All the while, the clock is ticking.
“These medications are incredibly time sensitive,” says Dr. Sonya Borrero, a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh who focuses on reproductive health equity. She says emergency contraception pills need to be taken within five days after unprotected sex — “but the sooner, the better.”
Surveys show that roughly a quarter of American women have, at some point in their lives, used emergency contraception pills to prevent an unintended pregnancy. This type of contraception is effective, safe and legal throughout the United States. And yet researchers are finding it’s not always available when people need it.
Take, for example, levonorgestrel, a form of emergency contraception better known under the brand name Plan B, although it’s also available in generic versions with names including My Way, Take Action and My Choice, to name a few. Borrero says Plan B is supposed to be available over the counter, on the shelf, stocked for all ages.
But when Borrero sent a team of medical students to pharmacies across western Pennsylvania to see what these stores actually had on hand, they found a third of pharmacies didn’t stock Plan B at all. And when they did have it, “most of the time it wasn’t really on the shelf. It was either behind the counter or in one of those locked boxes,” which means a customer would have to ask someone to hand them the emergency contraception. She says