The FDA had to respond by today to a request from the manufacturer of the emergency contraceptive Plan B to make their single-pill version available to all over the counter. It has only been since 2009 that women aged 17 and older have been able to buy Plan B without a prescription.
Progress has been slow, but not for medical reasons. Plan B been proven safe, many times over. No, the controversy is mostly political in nature -- and still, we've seen none of the teen sex cults that some (including a doctor with the FDA itself) said could result from the availability of emergency contraception. And while those waging war on women's rights can count many victories, signs were pointing to them taking a loss today.
Despite the FDA giving over-the-counter Plan B a green light, the Obama administration just put the kibosh on it:
The federal government Wednesday rejected a request to let young teenage girls buy the controversial morning-after pill Plan B directly off drugstore and supermarket shelves without a prescription.In a rare public split within the federal government, the Health and Human Services Department overruled a decision by the Food and Drug Administration to make the drug available to anyone of any age without a restriction.
FDA has recommended approval of this application in its Summary Review for Regulatory Action on Plan B One-Step. After careful consideration of the FDA Summary Review, I have concluded that the data, submitted by Teva, do not conclusively establish that Plan B One-Step should be made available over the counter for all girls of reproductive age.
Secretary Sebelius continues:
The average age of the onset of menstruation for girls in the United States is 12.4 years. However, about ten percent of girls are physically capable of bearing children by 11.1 years of age. It is common knowledge that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age. If the application were approved, the product would be available, without prescription, for all girls of reproductive age.
Yes, that would be the point.
Maybe expanding access to Plan B doesn't seem like a big deal. Still, I remember being a 16-year-old kid buying my first pack of condoms at the local drug store -- less out of necessity or aspiration, and more as a social experiment to see how embarrassed I'd feel. My male privilege was inherent in my being able to do that. A girl under 17 can't do that with Plan B. And that just hints at the manifold issues girls and women face when they seek out emergency contraception. Lack of access only engenders the notion that this is something they should be ashamed by, and decisions like this don't help.
Amanda Hess posts anecdotes today from women who've tried to obtain Plan B over the years, with varying difficulty. I also highly recommend that you check out feminist author Jessica Valenti's invaluable post on this subject, as well as the clip embedded below from the forthcoming documentary based on her book.
UPDATE: Amanda Marcotte points to an important fact from the New York Times report: though Secretary Sebelius has the authority to overrule the FDA, a spokeswoman for the federal agency said that no health secretary had ever done so. More from Amanda here.