November 18, 2005
Morning After Pill About Contraception, Not Abortion

By Froma Harrop

Teen promiscuity. Everyone in favor of teenagers having sex with lots of different partners, raise your hand. See? Except for a few very bad people, there's no constituency for teen promiscuity.

But there is quite a constituency for the morning-after pill, a contraceptive that goes under the brand name of Plan B. Some social conservatives see the morning-after pill as a green light for teenagers to have sex. Most Americans do not. They see the pill as a measure to avoid pregnancy when conventional contraceptives -- what we might call "Plan A" -- are not used. The Federal Drug Administration is deaf to such reasoning. It is giving Plan B a hard time.

What we have here is another example of the Bush administration's approach to health policy: Ignore the science, and indulge activists on the right.

When it came to the morning-after pill, the FDA apparently threw out the rulebook for approving drugs. The tale of Plan B is bizarre -- so much so that the Government Accountability Office was asked to look into what the heck was going on. The report issued by this nonpartisan panel does not reflect kindly on the administration's competence in regulating health matters.

The FDA apparently rejected an application to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B months before the government had completed a scientific review of it. Made by Barr Laboratories, Plan B is currently available only through prescription.

The decision to forbid over-the-counter sales was made in a "very, very rare" way, a top FDA review official told congressional investigators. Higher-ups in the agency hijacked it. In other words, they ripped up the step-by-step procedure for considering drug applications and gave their own private thumbs-down.

We don't know the role that former FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan played in this saga, because his e-mails on the subject have been deleted -- or so he says. How convenient. Appalled by the machinations, Susan Wood quit in August as FDA assistant commissioner for women's health.

Behind the seedy politics gurgles a swamp of misinformation about Plan B. Some people have gotten it into their heads that Plan B is an abortion pill. It is not. Even the FDA says it's a contraceptive. What Plan B mostly does is stop the release of an egg from the ovary or prevent fertilization of the egg. Plan B has no effect on a fertilized egg once it is implanted in the womb. Implantation is when a pregnancy starts.

To work properly, Plan B must be taken shortly after sex. Making women get prescriptions for it first may cause delays that render the drug useless.

In a rational society, it would be the job of Plan B's foes to get straight with the biology. Everyone else should not be denied full access to a good product because some people don't understand it.

As for the promiscuity part, there's little merit in the argument that giving teens access to Plan B removes a deterrent to having sex. That's because the options don't end at Plan B. Women have a Plan C to fall back on. Plan C is abortion. Most everyone prefers that women prevent pregnancies over ending them. Logic dictates that social conservatives would be out in front on that one -- but logic has left the room.

I fully share the conservatives' concern over the sexual activities of high-school students. Sex at these young ages exposes children to pregnancy and disease. These teens are not mature enough to handle the health and emotional issues involved. If social conservatives could push the genie of teenage sex back into the bottle, I'd be there pushing with them.

But teen promiscuity is a social problem best handled by the home, the schools and the media. Plan B is not some new opportunity drug, but an extension of the birth-control pills, diaphragms and condoms that teens already obtain.

While it can't stop teen promiscuity, Plan B could stop teen pregnancy. And what about older American women? Don't they have the right to pick a pill off their pharmacy's shelves that would help them prevent a pregnancy?

This isn't about abortion. It's about contraception, for heaven's sake. It's about making abortions unnecessary. Imagine: The muddled brains in the Bush administration are hassling women over contraception.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

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