American Women Should Know These Birth-Control Facts

Article excerpt

WHEN I was in college, a girlfriend and I took the bus from our all-women's school to Boston for what was then known as a "mixer," a cattle call hosted by several all-male schools in the area.

My friend wound up in bed with a guy she had known for 45 minutes. In the heat of the moment, neither of them used birth control. This was, after all, the era of the Sexual Revolution - before sexually transmitted diseases and maturity brought it to a grinding halt. In those days, the worst thing a girl could imagine happening after having sex was getting caught by her parents or getting pregnant.

The next morning, red-eyed and runny-nosed, my friend told me what had happened. She was scared. We made a couple of telephone calls and trooped down to a women's health clinic in Cambridge. A young doctor gave her a handful of birth control pills and sent her on her way. She took the pills as prescribed and threw up quite a bit on the bus trip back. But the pills did the trick. She didn't get pregnant.

That was in 1971.

The way the Food and Drug Administration has been acting recently, you'd think that the use of oral contraceptives as a "morning-after pill" was new, top-secret information whose suppression was vital to the preservation of our nation's domestic tranquillity.

The FDA said it soon plans to publish a notice in the Federal Register that oral contraceptives are safe and effective when used as "morning-after" pills up to 72 hours after unprotected intercourse. However, without an application from a drug company, the FDA can't f ormally approve the "new" use of birth control pills.

The emergency use of oral contraceptives after unprotected sex is hardly new, as my friend's experience suggests. Rape crisis centers and reproductive health clinics have used oral contraceptives in this way for a decade.

"Obstetricians have known about that for years," said Dr. Christine Cernik, an obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice here. "It's ho-hum to us."

Knowledge among physicians, however, is one thing. Dissemination of that knowledge to women in crisis is quite another. According to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, a New York advocacy group, the use of post-coital contraceptives could prevent as many as 1.2 million unwanted pregnancies - and almost as many abortions - each year. Unfortunately, most women don't know to ask for them.

Compounding the problem of women's ignorance is the reluctance of drug companies - fearful of liability lawsuits and anti-abortion protests - to market birth control pills for emergency use in the United States. …