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
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
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
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
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. …