In an unprecedented move, the HHS Secretary overruled the FDA decision on emergency contraception.

What Women Really Think
Dec. 7 2011 3:50 PM

Sebelius Overrules FDA on Plan B

Kathleen Sebelius.
Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled an FDA decision to make Plan B available over the counter

Photograph by Julie Denesha/Getty Images.

According to the New York Times, today marks a strange moment in history, the first time the Health and Human Services Secretary has ever overruled an FDA decision. And boy, the FDA is struggling not to sound completely irate over this decision. It’s hard to blame them, as Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has just rejected all available scientific evidence, her traditional pro-choice politics, the advice of all the relevant medical academies, and basic common sense to tell the FDA that they cannot make Plan B emergency contraception available over the counter to anyone who wishes to buy it. Right now, in violation of a judge’s orders, the FDA has restricted OTC sales of Plan B to women 17 and older, even though there’s no scientific evidence to suggest it’s harmful to younger women. The FDA finally came to its senses on this issue, only to have this victory for women’s health snatched away at the last minute by Sebelius, sending shocks of confusion and betrayal through the pro-choice community, who always thought of Sebelius as a member in good standing.

Having the 17-and-older restriction on Plan B is awful for two major reasons. The first and most obvious is that it keeps younger women in need from accessing it without a prescription. Since you need to take the pills within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, the clock will run out on young women who have to work up the courage to tell a parent, then go to a doctor for a prescription, and then go to the pharmacy. For those who’ve been sexually assaulted, it could be even worse, because a fairly standard response, especially amongst minors, to rape is to bunch up in denial and refuse to talk to anyone about it for a long time. The only reason to keep these restrictions in place is to force pregnancy on unwilling minors as punishment for having sex, and just accept the impregnated rape victims as collateral damage.  

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The other reason that it’s just a terrible idea to have these restrictions on Plan B is that doing so means that all women, not just minors, have to go through a pharmacist to get the drug. In order to comply with restrictions, pharmacies have to put Plan B behind the counter with the cough medicine and cigarettes, instead of out in the aisle next to the condoms and aspirin where it would go in a saner country. While some of us can endure having to ask for Plan B out loud and stoutly exclaim, “Hey, the condom broke!” if anyone gives us the stink eye, being afraid to do so isn’t a crime and shouldn’t be punished with unintended pregnancy. In a better world, discussing your personal business with a pharmacist would be easy and shame-free all the time, but in our world, not every woman is so lucky. Putting Plan B on the shelf helps women avoid uncomfortable conversations that may discourage them from buying it.

Plan B is safe, and works using roughly the same principle as traditional contraception, by preventing the egg from meeting the sperm. The stigma attached to it is strictly due to the fact that it’s taken after sex, suggesting that the taboo is due to an American unease with giving women the right to say no to a man’s seed even after he’s ejaculated.

Amanda Marcotte is a Brooklyn-based writer and DoubleX contributor. She also writes regularly for the Daily Beast, AlterNet, and USA Today. Follow her on Twitter.

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