Emergency contraceptive less available in rural NC

by Amy Kingsley

Burton’s Health Mart Pharmacy is located almost as near as it gets to Greensboro’s epicenter: on a bend of Lindsay Street just shy of downtown, right across the street from VF Corp. headquarters.

From this spot pharmacists dispense anything from antibiotics to antipsychotics. In August 2006 they cleared a new space under the counter for Plan B, an emergency contraceptive also known as the morning after pill, when the FDA approved the drug for over-the-counter sale for women age 18 and older. The pharmacy has made a point of stocking the drug, despite the protests from pro-life activists that the pill terminates nascent life.

In this way, Burton’s is a lot like most pharmacies in Greensboro. An unscientific poll of more than a dozen of the area’s 50-plus apothecaries revealed only one – Lane Drug on Elm Street – that didn’t have Plan B or other forms of emergency contraception in stock.

“We don’t have it on the shelf,” said an unidentified man at Lane Drug. “We don’t have any aversion to ordering it and we don’t make comments for the newspaper.”

Women living in Eden might have a harder time accessing emergency contraception. Pharmacists at the Boulevard Pharmacy in Eden, one of about a dozen listed drug stores, said the shop did not carry the drug and would not order it. The owner did not offer a rationale for the policy. There was at least one other independent drug store in Eden that did stock emergency contraception.

The differences between the two counties – one urban and the other rural – are consistent with a report released June 18 by NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina Foundation. Researchers polled a third of the state’s licensed pharmacies and found that 40 percent did not have any emergency contraception in stock, and 30 percent of those refused to order any. Rural areas fared a little worse in terms of access, with only 57 percent of pharmacies carrying the drug, according to the report.

“Pharmacists and hospitals in rural areas are less likely to stock emergency contraception,” said Amy Woodell, the statewide organizer for NARAL.

Women who live in rural areas, particularly those with very few pharmacies, may have trouble locating Plan B in a timely manner, Woodell said. And timing is key; Plan B is effective in preventing pregnancy during the first 72 hours after unprotected sex or condom failure. It can be taken up to 120 hours afterwards, but is more effective the sooner it is taken.

Volunteers who called drug stores around the state also discovered that some pharmacists were misinformed about what Plan B is and how it works. Nearly one fourth of all the pharmacists surveyed said emergency contraception and the abortion pill are the same. In reality, emergency contraception is just a high dose of birth control that can suppress ovulation, fertilization or implantation. Mifepristone, the abortion pill, is used to end a viable pregnancy during the first nine weeks with two drugs that separate the placenta from the fetus and induce uterine contractions.

Some pharmacists refuse to stock emergency contraception on moral grounds – an organization called Pharmacists for Life International has lobbied for conscience clauses that allow health care professionals who oppose contraception to refuse to fill prescriptions for the drug and RU-486, the abortion pill.

Woodell said NARAL is pushing legislation that would require hospital emergency rooms to stock emergency contraception for victims of sexual assault. Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro already offers emergency contraception to patients who come in after they’ve been raped, said spokesman Doug Allred.

Doctors at Morehead Memorial Hospital in Eden also offer a generic version emergency contraception with the same active ingredient as Plan B to victims of sexual assault, said spokesman Kerry Faunce.

Faunce said the emergency room occasionally receives calls from women who have had consensual unprotected sex who are looking for emergency contraception, but the hospital refers them to their doctor or pharmacy.

“We don’t make a moral judgment about emergency contraception,” he said. “We don’t distribute any medications over the counter unless you check into the emergency room.”

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