LITTLE ROCK — The Obama administration’s decision to abandon efforts to block the over-the-counter sales of an emergency contraception drug has conservative groups considering ways to stop non-prescription sales in Arkansas.
Abortion opponents said they are researching the issue and have discussed the possibility of asking the Legislature in 2015 to adopt age restrictions or an outright ban on the sale of Plan B One-Step, the so-called morning after pill.
"Do I have legislation in my hip pocket? No, I don’t have anything," said Jerry Cox, director of the conservative Christian Family Council. "We really need to research this issue … to find out exactly what is being mandated and how much leeway a state has in saying, ‘thanks, but no thanks.’"
Plan B has been available by prescription in the United States since 1999. In 2005, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit challenging a federal government policy to limit over-the-counter access to the drug to women over 18. Four years later, a New York federal judge ordered the federal Food and Drug Administration to reconsider the policy and to extend over-the-counter access to women younger than 18.
In a petition filed in December 2010, the center accused the government of dragging its feet in complying with the court order. The FDA subsequently announced plans to lift all restrictions on the drug, including age requirements, but Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius blocked the change.
Then on June 10, the Justice Department announced it would stop fighting the court order.
Cox said the decision means that "essentially, kids can get contraception now as easy as they can buy candy out of the store. That’s what bothers me."
Cox said he and a number of conservative lawmakers met informally last week and broached the idea of developing legislation between now and the 2015 session that would prohibit the sale of the morning-after pill without a prescription or set an age limit for over-the-counter sales.
Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, sponsor of Arkansas’ 20-week abortion ban, attended the meeting and said later it was too early to discuss what direction any legislation would take.
Cox said the issue is sure to be discussed when he and state leaders of similar organizations meet at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, Co., at the end of the month to discuss social issues effecting states.
"We get together and just talk about what’s going on and I figure this will come up out there at the meeting," he said. "I will probably get some ideas from some of the other national people that are going to be talking to us as well."
Jill June, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, which includes Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska and eastern Oklahoma, said she expects other states to try to legislatively limit or prohibit the over-the-counter sale of the morning-after pill.
"The scientists and advocates and the judge who looked at this, and the FDA, they have all agreed that this medication is perfectly safe," June said. "It certainly is safer than pregnancy and it should be be available."
She said the availability of emergency contraception will not only reduce unwanted pregnancies but also reduce the number of abortions.
"Some people who are talking about opposing access to this make the argument that it really causes an abortion, and that is absolutely false," June said. "Every scientist knows that … this prevents conception from taking place and if legislators in Arkansas are confused about that they need to talk to their high school science teacher."
Marianne Linane, director of the Respect Life office of the Catholic diocese of Little Rock, maintained that use of Plan B can result in abortion.
Linane, a nurse, acknowledged that the drug’s primary indications are to prevent ovulation and inhibit the joining of male sperm and the female egg.
A third effect, she said, brings the drug into conflict with the church’s anti-abortion policy in that it alters the endometrium, which may inhibit implantation of the fertilized egg into the uterus.
"It creates a hostile environment in the uterus. That’s post-fertilization. All of the science says life begins a fertilization," she said. "That’s, in effect, an abortion."
While the diocese has no official position on the drug, Linane said she has other strong objections to the Obama administration’s decision as a nurse and women’s advocate.
As a health issue, she said massive doses of hormones may not be are not good for women. As an environmental issue, she said recirculated hormones in wastewater degrades much slower than natural hormones.
Because the drug will be accessible over-the-counter to females of any age, Linance said she also objects to the lack of parental oversight.
"Parents do have a right, in fact they have an obligation, to know if their children are sexually active," she said, adding also that easy availability could enable sexual predators.
"It has been shown that the younger the girl is, the greater the age discrepancy between the girl and the person with whom she is having sex," Linane said. "It could lead 21 (year-old) or even older males to impregnate girls or just have sex with them and then provide them with the (morning-after) drug."
Mark Riley, executive vice president of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, said pharmacies have the option, under state law, of refusing to sell a drug if they have a moral objection.
"There is a conscience clause in the regulations on pharmacy," he said. "Most often they just won’t stock it but they will recommend someplace they know in the community that does have it."
He said objecting to the sale of a drug is uncommon and he did not know how many pharmacies have raised such objections, or for which drugs.
"We normally don’t hear much about it, I don’t know how widespread it is but the clause does exist," he said.