Update, May 2, 2017: This article has been updated to include a response from Amazon.
Back in November, when the world was still reluctantly adjusting to the reality of a Trump presidency, some Americans started preparing themselves for the threat posed to women's health. Given the GOP stance on access to contraception, there was a well documented rush on IUD insertions and some health care providers began drafting suggestions for their clients on what to expect.
Jeremy A., a 25-year-old former EMT and pharmacy technician, responded by ordering six boxes of emergency contraception—Opcicon One Step, a generic version of emergency contraception—off of Amazon just before Inauguration Day. "I bought it because I was concerned that the new Republican administration would make this type of medication harder to obtain for those who need it," Jeremy told me in an email.
Emergency contraception, also known as the morning-after pill, has been available without a prescription (but behind the pharmacy counter) to adult women since 2009. Four years and one major court decision later, the age restrictions were lifted and the medication was moved to the retail aisles. (Though in reality, this didn't happen everywhere.) Jeremy intended to stock up before the new administration could undo the hard-won battle to make the medication accessible.
Eleven days later, the package arrived from a vendor that sells pharmaceutical products. Like he does with every medication he buys, Jeremy checked the expiration date, which is legally required to appear on the outside of the box as well as whatever contains the medication itself. Instead, there was a sticker on the outside of the box, and under that, a patch where the date had been scratched off. The same was true for all the rest of the boxes in his order, as well, he wrote, as those friends had ordered.
He reached out to the maker of the drug, who then instructed him carefully lift the cardboard circle covering the pill—without breaking the foil—to examine the wrapping of the individual pills. He found they were dated July 2016, six months before Jeremy had made the order.
Jeremy isn't the only one to have discovered this. Several reviews for OpciCon from different vendors note that the expiration date—if they can find it—has long passed. Amazon's rules explicitly ban selling medication that has passed its sell-by date, so Jeremy reached out to Amazon and left a claim with the FDA. Amazon refunded his money and the product has since been taken down—but still appears in the Amazon store through other vendors, possibly of the same batch that expired in July 2016.
Amazon hasn't contacted buyers, such as Jeremy's friends, who purchased the expired pills. Many of the negative reviews mention the same kind of tampering.
"The biggest issue with an expired medication is that it may not work, and so with Plan B that could be a pregnancy," Dr. Jennifer Gunter, a San Francisco-based gynecologist and blogger told Motherboard via email. "It's sad that women feel they need to stock up and it sucks that people are trying to take advantage of that."
Moreover, Gunter said consumers should never trust medication that has been tampered with, regardless of the date.
"My issue with this is if a box is tampered with in any way, never ever use the medication. Ever. Tampering with medications is illegal and unethical and if they have tampered with one thing, what else have they tampered with? Do not buy medications from untrustworthy people! How do you know if it is counterfeit?" Gunter continued.
Jeremy also reached out to the FDA, who, he wrote, is taking the matter "extremely seriously." Last month, he said, a government agent came to examine the boxes. But he's disappointed Amazon hasn't made more of an effort to reach out to buyers, considering how common the problem seems to be.
The company sent me the following statement regarding the issue: "Customer safety is our highest priority. We monitor the products sold on our website for product safety concerns, and when appropriate, we remove a product from the website, reach out to sellers, manufacturers and government agencies for additional information to take the necessary actions. If customers have concerns on items they've purchased we encourage them to contact our Customer Service directly and work with us so we can investigate and take appropriate action."
But if reproductive rights are abridged under the next few years, we can expect to see more of this: Shady vendors offering potentially dangerous solutions to women's health care, instead of safe access.
Correction: this story originally referred to "Plan B" in the headline. We've since updated the copy to correctly identify the product and regret the error.