Here’s what the Obama administration’s decision to stop fighting over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill means: Science for once wins over politics. The Food and Drug Administration approved Plan B (an older version of the one-step drug that’s now at issue) way back in 1999. Under Bush, the FDA refused to grant approval. “Some said later, they worried they would be fired if they approved it,” the New York Times reported. In 2006, after research showing this emergency contraception to be safe and effective, the Bush FDA approved its sale over the counter, but only for women 18 and older. The result ever since has been that everyone has to ask a pharmacist for the drug and show proof of age to buy it.
After President Obama’s election and more research showing that teenage girls can understand the medication’s warning label and take it safely, the FDA prepared to lift the age restriction on over-the-counter access. But then politics got in the way. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius swooped in to block the FDA. Why? Sebelius didn’t have any good science to cite, so she raised the specter of a 10- or 11-year-old girl walking into a drugstore and picking up Plan B along with bubble gum. President Obama harrumphed that as a father he personally didn’t like the idea that his daughters could walk into a pharmacy and buy the morning-after pill.
The president may speak for a lot of fathers. And in a lot of realms of governance, that would be enough. But FDA rulings are supposed to be based on science—what the data show, not what a powerful father happens to feel. In this case, keeping Plan B off the shelves (the one-step version that is taking over the market) is irrational. Ten- and 11-year-olds can buy a lethal dose of Tylenol any time. Compare the side effects of Plan B—nausea and getting your period later. Any rational weighing of risks points to making emergency contraception available, as three scientists wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.
This has never been about rational weighing of risks. It was about fear of teenage sex, first from a Republican president and then, more cravenly, from a Democratic one. The courts called the Obama administration’s bluff, and now a safe medication that prevents pregnancy should soon be widely available. The lesson should be that presidents can’t get away with denying science. At least not forever.