Investigating Access to Emergency Contraception in Bogotá
María José Rivas, Board of Directors
The United States saw a recent victory for sexual and reproductive rights when a federal judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration to allow emergency contraception to be sold over-the-counter without age restrictions. This decision has the power to increase access to emergency contraception for all women in the US—but especially young women—by removing the requirement for a physician's prescription for girls 16 and younger.
I am a 26-year-old Paraguayan woman, but I until a few weeks ago I was living in Bogotá, Colombia. Since I didn’t know about restrictions on the sale of emergency contraception there, I did a bit of (unscientific) research one day on my way home from work. I stopped by three pharmacies near to where I lived and inquired about obtaining emergency contraception.
My first stop was a supermarket that sells some over-the-counter drugs on its shelves alongside condoms, moisturizing cream, and other toiletries. I looked for emergency contraception and couldn’t find any, so I went to the in-store pharmacy. I asked the pharmacist behind the counter a few general questions about emergency contraception:
How much does it cost? Approximately $10 USD. Do I need a prescription? No. Do you sell emergency contraception to teenagers? NO! Is there any regulation issued by the Ministry of Health that bans pharmacists from providing emergency contraception to teens? No, she replied, but she won’t give it to girls who appear young.
I moved on to the next pharmacy, where I encountered an older, male pharmacist. I asked him the same questions, and received the same answers. Then I said, “But you know that if you don’t sell a young woman emergency contraception, she might have an unwanted pregnancy, right?” To my dismay, he replied, “Yes, but that’s not my problem.”
Fortunately, my experience at the last pharmacy I visited was more encouraging. When I asked the pharmacist if he sold emergency contraception to teens he said, "Yes, I do. I know some might believe that's a bit unethical, but it’s better than an unwanted pregnancy."
Finally, some common sense! I almost hugged the man. I reassured the pharmacist that providing a young person with emergency contraception is not unethical, but empowering. It gives them control of their own bodies and allows them to make their own decisions for their futures.
All three of the pharmacists told me they were unaware of any regulation that restricts the sale of emergency contraception to young people in Colombia. As a lawyer, I support legal systems and policies that guarantee access to sexual and reproductive health care and contraception. But I know that many times laws are not enough. Denying access to contraception doesn’t prevent young people from having sex. It only increases the chance of unwanted adolescent pregnancies.
Eleanor Roosevelt was right when she said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”
Sexual and reproductive rights are human rights. And we need to ensure that those small places, close to home—like our neighborhood pharmacies—are places where everyone’s human rights are realized, with dignity and without discrimination.