Yesterday, the FDA approved the emergency contraception Plan B for over-the-counter sales -- meaning no prescription needed, no identification necessary, no restrictions of any kind -- because "the drug could be used safely by women of all ages." Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius disagreed, and used her office's power to override the FDA for the first time in HHS history.
This did not go over well. "Left blogs fume over Plan B decision" was Politico's headline. Reactions ranged from disappointment to anger to utter surprise; criticism was alternately scientific and political in nature. In nearly every case, the decision was laid at President Obama's doorstep.
The President noted today that this was Secretary Sebelius' decision alone. Even so, he made it clear he agrees with her:
"I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine," Obama said during an impromptu news conference at the White House.He said Sebelius decided 10- and 11-year-olds should not be able to buy the drug "alongside bubble gum or batteries" because it could have an adverse effect if not used properly. He said "most parents" probably feel the same way.
Although it’s hard to believe that conservative voters would be particularly swayed by the president’s capitulation on this front, teen sex has always had a special place in paternalistic and politicized approaches to public health. It doesn’t matter that teenagers can, and do, get pregnant (or contract sexually transmitted diseases) just like women over 17. They still have to be “protected” by parental-notification laws about abortion or from comprehensive, scientifically grounded information about sex. Politically speaking, teenagers aren’t exactly a powerful voting bloc — but their terrified parents are presumed to be.