A flip-flop on the pill

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A flip-flop on the pill

The Korea Food and Drug Administration’s plan to reclassify contraception pills has foundered after some interest groups’ vehement opposition to the changes. In June, the KFDA announced it will classify ordinary contraception pills as “special drugs that require a doctor’s prescription” and morning-after pills as over-the-counter drugs, reversing its earlier classifications on each. A number of medical experts and civic groups considered the switch a positive thing for public health, and the agency still believes the reclassification is the way to go.

The KFDA wanted the change for the following reasons. First of all, habitual taking of contraception pills - basically hormonal drugs - can cause harmful side effects. Women should take them for as long as 21 days in a row to avoid pregnancy. But taking the pills for such a long term can cause adverse effects such as thrombosis or myocardial infarction - which is one of the reasons for requiring a prescription. Also, the pills are frequently used by young girls to adjust their menstrual cycles without paying attention to adverse effects.

In the case of morning-after pills, however, the KFDA decided it would be better to give women easier access to the drugs as they are taken within three days of sexual intercourse to avoid an unwanted pregnancy.

However, the KFDA’s initiative caused conflict between the religious community and women’s rights organizations as well as between doctors and pharmacists. The new guideline also sparked a backlash from parents and teachers alike because a reclassification of morning-after pills as over-the-counter drugs could encourage juveniles to lead hazardous sex lives. Despite a series of public hearings on the issue, the KFDA stepped back, citing a need to canvass public opinion for three more years in the face of an unbridgeable gulf on all sides.

No doubt contraception pills are closely connected to important decisions like childbirth and abortion, and the issue must also take our culture and existing practices into account. But it is not desirable for the KFDA to backpedal on its earlier decision, which was made for good reasons. Whatever policies it strives to push forward, it must adhere to its principle and address resistance properly. The agency’s flip-flop leaves much doubt about its reputation as a caretaker of public health.

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