On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled a science-based decision by the FDA to allow girls under 17 to access the emergency contraceptive Plan B without a prescription. Currently, women 17 and older can obtain the drug without a prescription, but must show ID at a pharmacy in order to access it. The FDA found that the drug, which is more effective the more quickly it is taken, is “safe and effective and should be approved for nonprescription use for all females of child-bearing potential.”
Defending Sebelius’ decision yesterday, President Obama said that as a father of two girls he was uneasy with Plan B being available “alongside bubble gum and batteries.”
In making this argument, Obama and Sebelius are channeling both the Religious Right’s contempt of science and its paternalistic attitude toward women’s reproductive health.
The “bubble gum and batteries” argument is, of course, not about safety – and neither is the Right’s opposition to Plan B. Girls of any age can walk into a pharmacy and buy any number of things that could damage their health if used improperly (Aspirin, Robitussin, rat poison). Plan B, at a cost of $30 to $50 a pop, is unlikely to be either an impulse purchase or a sexually active young woman’s primary method of birth control. Instead, it’s exactly what it bills itself as – an emergency measure to prevent pregnancy in the event of rape or contraceptive failure. And it becomes less effective the longer a woman waits to take it – adding a compelling reason why it should be available without a prescription and without a middle man.
The Religious Right’s fight to keep young woman from obtaining Plan B has never been about safety. Unable to keep the drug from being approved in the first place, anti-choice groups have fallen back on trying to keep it off the shelves and out of sight. In an email alert about the decision, the Family Research Council made these priorities very clear. The group applauded Sebelius for ensuring that Plan B would “stay behind pharmacy counters–where it belongs” and then backtracked to say they “opposed” the drug “from the beginning.” Wendy Wright, former director of Concerned Women for America, also ended a statement focusing on the safety of teenage girls (who she said would “rely on” Plan B as birth control if it became easily available) by criticizing the fact that the drug was available at all.
The decision to keep Plan B behind pharmacy counters will not appease the groups that don’t want it to be available in the first place. Instead, it will add more fuel to the Right’s attempts to cut off reproductive rights for women, while denying women of all ages the right to buy a safe drug without having to jump over hurdles laid out by politicians.