Are pharmacists lying to teens about emergency contraception?

Just in time for Back Up Your Birth Control day tomorrow, here’s some disturbing emergency contraception news. Young women being misinformed about emergency contraception by pharmacists is, sadly, not news. And a new study suggests that it could actually be deliberate. MSNBC reports:

For the new study, researchers posing as either a 17-year-old girl or a doctor seeking help for a 17-year-old girl called every pharmacy in each of five U.S. cities asking about the availability and accessibility of emergency contraception.

All callers asked questions from a script. The first question was whether the pharmacy had the medication in stock — 80 percent of the 943 pharmacies said they did. Next, the researcher posing as a teen asked if she could get the drug, while the researcher posing as the doctor of a 17-year-old patient asked if the patient could get the medication.

There was a huge disparity between the answers given to the teens and those offered to the physicians, with 19 percent of the 17-year-olds being told that they couldn’t get it under any circumstances, compared with only 3 percent of the physicians.

That’s nearly one in five teens who were told they simply couldn’t get EC at all–when they most certainly can. As the study’s author says, “And I think if you told an adolescent once that she couldn’t get the medication, she probably wouldn’t call another pharmacy.” Indeed. When it comes to health care, most people–teens included–tend to listen to the professionals who are supposed to know best.

It’s possible that pharmacies aren’t straight-up lying to teens. The authors point out that the doctors in the study were often put through to the actual pharmacists while the teens tended to speak to pharmacy employees who might not have known the rules for over-the-counter access to EC. But still–I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the employees most likely to talk to inquiring teens be well-informed.

Of course, you know how this whole thing could be remedied in one fell swoop? What would ensure that pharmacists can’t deny teens access to EC by refusing to stock it, or deliberately lying, or simply accidentally misinforming them? Making EC over-the-counter for all ages, so that everyone just knows it’s on the counter between the condoms and the pregnancy tests. And you can thank Kathleen Sebelius and the Obama administration for crushing that dream last year.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard. Before become a full-time writer, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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