The US Food and Drug Administration has rejected emergency contraceptives as over-the-counter medication, at least for now. That’s a big but temporary setback for one of the best public policy options for preventing unintended pregnancies (and the abortions and births that result).

Each day, more than half a million Northwest couples have sex; most of them do not aim to conceive a child. In the heat of passion, perhaps 40,000 of these couples dispense with birth control and take their chances on pregnancy; in some 2,000 more cases, a condom inadvertently tears or slips. (Read more in “Expand Access to Emergency Contraception” in This Place on Earth 2001.)

Emergency contraception offers a safety net for these instances.

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  • Fortunately, in Cascadia, the setback matters less than almost anywhere else in North America. Alaska, British Columbia, California, and Washington all have programs in place through which women can get Plan B, as the main brand of the medication is called, from pharmacists without visiting a doctor first. In BC, Plan B is available over the counter from virtually all pharmacies. In Alaska, California, and Washington, it’s available straight from the pharmacy desk in many drug stores. FDA approval, which is likely to come sooner or later, will expand the number of pharmacies in these state from which Plan B is readily available. And it will expand that service to all other American states, including of course, the rest of Cascadia.

    May 8 Update: Today’s New York Times details just how unusual the FDA action is, given that both the agency’s external review committee and its own staff recommended approval of Plan B as an over-the-counter medication.

    Footnote: We can take pride in the Northwest’s role in the history of Plan B. Washington was the first state to offer emergency contraception directly from pharmacists. The originator of that effort was the innovative nonprofit PATH. BC quickly followed Washington’s lead. In time, California and Alaska did, too, along with Hawaii and New Mexico.

    And the national outreach campaign to support FDA approval of Plan B as over-the-counter medication has been run by Arlene Fairfield of DDB Bass & Howes in Seattle.