Chicago The American Medical Assn. is wading into the morally fraught debate over whether the "morning-after" pill should be made available over the counter.
While the Vatican recently condemned the emergency contraceptive and the nation's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, decided last year not to sell it, the AMA's Council on Medical Service is recommending that it be made easier to obtain.
The council's report is scheduled to be debated by a committee Sunday at an AMA meeting in Orlando, Fla. The committee could then send it to the AMA's policymaking House of Delegates during the four-day meeting.
Taken within three days of sexual intercourse, the contraceptives are essentially high-dose birth control pills that prevent ovulation or, if that has already occurred, block implantation of a fertilized egg. In most cases, they are available only by prescription.
The AMA council said that some women might not be able to get the pills in time to prevent a pregnancy, so the AMA "should request that the Food and Drug Administration consider making emergency contraception pills available over the counter."
The pills are "considered safe and effective by the medical community as a whole," the council said. There are two morning-after pills on the market: Preven and Plan B. They were approved for U.S. use within the past two years.
Planned Parenthood President Gloria Feldt said AMA support for over-the-counter use would be "an extremely important step for prevention of unintended pregnancy in a country where half of all pregnancies are unintended."
"If every woman of reproductive age had ready access to it, it could prevent 800,000 abortions a year," Feldt said Thursday.
Though morning-after pills are not as widely opposed as the RU-486 prescription abortion pill approved by the FDA in September, foes consider them a form of abortion since an egg could have been fertilized by the time a woman takes them.
The issue was first brought before the AMA at a meeting last year after Wal-Mart decided not to sell the pills at its 2,400 pharmacies.
Wal-Mart, with a large part of its customer base in conservative, small-town America, said at the time that the decision had nothing to do with ethical concerns. Instead, it said it concluded that the emergency contraceptive might not sell well enough to make it worth the effort.
Planned Parenthood does not consider the method abortion since it does not work if a fertilized egg has already implanted itself in the uterus, the scientific definition of pregnancy, Feldt said.
Feldt noted that Washington state recently began allowing pharmacists to provide the pills without a prescription, but with counseling.
Some Planned Parenthood clinics provide the pills to women beforehand, with counseling, in case they need them at some point, Feldt said.