Federal regulators are investigating a small public college in Pennsylvania for allowing students to get the pregnancy prevention drug known as the "morning after" pill from a vending machine.
Students at Shippensburg University can buy the drug, also known as Plan B, for $25 without talking to a pharmacist or medical professional, even though the drug is not supposed to be available over the counter.
Pro-life advocates say Shippensburg administrators are downplaying the drug's potential side-effects, and even medical professionals who support its availability say allowing students to take it without any input or advice is a bad idea.
Drug manufacturer Teva Pharmaceuticals asked the Food and Drug Administration last year to make the pills available over the counter, a request Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius denied. Citing concerns over allowing girls as young as 11 to buy the drug off store shelves, Sebelius decided Plan B should be kept behind the pharmacy counter and sold without a prescription only to girls 17 and older.
The Plan B One Step emergency contraceptive works by preventing fertilization or preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. Pro-life advocates say the drug causes early abortions.
Anna Franzonello, counsel for Americans United for Life, said anyone taking the drug needed to be aware of its potential problems.
"Students at Shippensburg University deserve better than to have their administration represent the potent drug with life-ending potential as no more harmful than any other vending machine item," she said.
Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said offering counseling to students who think they might be pregnant would be more appropriate.
"It would be a much more productive use of funds if universities would partner with local pregnancy resource centers where students can get real help if they need it," she said.
Alexandra Stern, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan who does not oppose the drug in general, questioned the wisdom of making it so easily available.
"Perhaps it is personalized medicine taken too far," she said. "It's part of the general trend that drugs are available for consumers without interface with a pharmacist or doctors. This trend has serious pitfalls."
Deanne Hall, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, said the ability to get Plan B without at least talking to someone first might discourage rape victims from getting medical attention. Teva Pharmaceuticals promotes Plan B as a good option for women who have been sexually assaulted and fear they might get pregnant.
Rob Maher, a professor at the Duquesne University School of Pharmacy in Pittsburgh, also voiced reservations about putting Plan B in a vending machine, noting that women needed to talk to a health care professional about all of the health risks before taking any drug.
"That's the big risk with a vending machine like this," he said.
Shippensburg administrators defended the vending machine, which first appeared in the school's health center about two years ago. Administrators say only the school's 8,300 students and faculty members have access to the machine, which also distributes condoms and pregnancy tests.
In a statement released earlier this week, school spokesman Peter Gigliotti said the school decided to make Plan B available on campus after 85 percent of students who responded to a survey about health center services said they wanted access to the drug.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is contacting state officials and the university to gather facts about the machine, agency spokeswoman Stephanie Yao said Tuesday. Neither federal nor state officials would say whether it was illegal to dispense Plan B from a vending machine.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.