Salvo 02.20.2024 4 minutes

Popping the Pill

Empty pill wrappers on a pink table.

Plan B is not just a contraceptive Tic Tac.

The Sunday morning Plan B run was a staple of life and a running joke back in college. Girls would drive to CVS for the pill and stop by Starbucks on the way home for a treat. A sweet little adventure with the girls: what’s the big deal?

Of course, if you didn’t get to the pharmacy quick enough—particularly in university towns—panic might set in. Low shelf supply could send you on an anxious quest around the city for a fully-stocked pharmacy.

It tracks with my experience that women’s use of emergency contraception (EC) has increased dramatically over the past two decades. Perhaps it’s the result of commercial advertisements or the convenience of purchasing it directly off the shelf rather than over-the-counter or through prescription.

There are two types of “morning-after pills”: over-the-counter levonorgestrel pills and ulipristal acetate-based pills that require a prescription. Intrauterine devices (IUDs) are also considered emergency contraception, but they require a doctor to implant the device—so they are generally less common than an immediate pill form of emergency contraceptive.

According to CDC data for 2006-2010, most women who had used emergency contraception had done so once (59 percent) or twice (24 percent). Young adult women aged 20-24 were most likely to have used emergency contraception; about one in four had done so (23 percent).

More recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (2017-2019) indicates that younger women are more sexually active than ever before and even more likely to take emergency contraception than before. Somewhat contradicting the “sex drought” narrative, about one third of women ages 15-24 (34 percent) and women ages 25-34 (36 percent) say they have taken emergency contraception pills.

I suspect that these numbers have only increased since the time of that survey. Emergency contraception has changed from a last resort in true emergencies into a “better safe than sorry” precautionary measure. This indicates deep and widespread misunderstanding of pregnancy risk, ovulation, and overall fertility among young women—and indeed I can recall numerous instances when college friends popped Plan B reflexively, and probably unnecessarily. How could a group of smart (almost) college-educated women be so smart, yet so dumb?

Recently, one of my favorite fashion influencers took to Instagram and posted a Reel in which she took Plan B because a pregnancy would “ruin her wedding.” The comments section overflowed with praise for normalizing the medication. This type of video, and the ensuing comment responses, are quite typical on platforms like TikTok and Instagram, especially under tags such as #PlanB, #EmergencyContraceptive, and so on. Other viral videos describe how to buy Levonorgestrel pills at Costco for as low as $5.99

That idea is further enforced by the ever-expanding access to morning after pills on college campuses. USA Today reported that at least 39 colleges and universities across 17 states have implemented emergency contraception vending machines on their campuses. Pill purveyors are now particularly targeting states that have restricted abortion access since Roe v. Wade was overturned. Boston University’s vending machine sells Plan B for around $10, and the University of Washington sells it for $12.70—certainly a competitive and affordable price compared to the $49.99 pill at national pharmacy chains.

The transformation of Plan B into a TikTok accessory or a vending-machine trinket has been sold as a victory for women’s autonomy and reproductive autonomy. But in fact it reflects the consequences of systematically miseducating a generation of young women about their own reproductive systems.

Even irrespective of ethical concerns about Plan B as a commercial product (the Catholic Church considers it an “abortifacient”), at a purely practical level, women who take the pill likely don’t understand its risks and limitations. Nor do they seem to know when it is truly called for, since they have been raised in the unreflective “better safe than sorry” school of thought.

There is real danger in the misconception that Plan B is a contraceptive Tic Tac—a casual, everyday solution. Like any hormonal birth control, it carries a risk of mood swings, anxiety, delayed menstruation, cramping, and a host of other possible, albeit not always common, side effects.

We’ve only just opened the door to questioning the way doctors have been encouraging women to start taking birth control as a standard practice while ignoring patient complaints and side effects. We’ve also only just started to take a critical eye to the way institutional science has studied the effects of birth control and other medications on women’s bodies.

The era of educators and doctors ridiculing ovulation tracking should be left behind; instead, we should usher in a future where extensive fertility education forms the basis of sexual education. It is crucial that we prioritize fertility education in high school, in college, and at home so that young women can make informed choices regarding their reproductive health. They need far better guidance than TikTok influencers and university bureaucrats can provide.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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