Obama Lets Politics Trump Science in Plan B Fight
the decision in December by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to block the nonprescription sale of emergency contraceptives—known as Plan B—to all women who need it, including girls younger than 17.
Sebelius insisted that she had a “scientific” rationale for overruling the science-based recommendation of the FDA: there wasn’t enough data to satisfy her, she said. What was missing? Data that showed girls as young as 11 could correctly use emergency contraception. But this rationale doesn’t hold water.
To test this, I went to a pharmacy recently to purchase some Plan B and to see for myself how the process worked. Early on a Saturday evening, I had to go to three stores to find an open pharmacy counter. I then needed to stand in two different lines and show my ID (though I am obviously over 17 years old!). After paying $50 for a single Plan B pill, I bought a bottle of children’s acetaminophen (bubble-gum-flavored) for $5—enough chewable pills for any 11-year-old to suffer life-threatening liver damage. Also on the shelf, of course, were many types of condoms, available to anyone with a few dollars in his or her wallet.
So the Plan B decision was clearly not about safety or effectiveness—indeed, the FDA commissioner, Peggy Hamburg, clearly stated that the agency was ready to approve it fully over the counter. It was also not about use by preteens, because by keeping emergency contraception prescription only for those under 17, any woman who needs it fast—whether in her 20s, 30s, or 40s—will have to find that open pharmacy and the pharmacist to give it to her.
Let’s remember that Plan B is simply a higher dose of regular birth-control pills and works the same way, only immediately after unprotected sex, not before. Despite the scare tactics and misinformation campaigns being waged by the Catholic hierarchy and others who oppose allowing women to access contraception, Plan B is not the abortion pill (sometimes known as RU-486), and it will not interrupt a pregnancy.
On its surface, the secretary’s action was a small thing. After all, invoking concerns about sexually active preteens is enough to garner the support of most parents, no matter what. But when Sebelius decided to block the FDA’s recommendation, and when she asserted her own interpretation of medical and scientific data, she set a new and potentially dangerous precedent.