The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:
During the George W. Bush administration, it was commonplace for politics to trump science, particularly in the areas of health and the environment. We didn’t expect this kind of nonsense from the administration of Barack Obama. But in a major surprise Wednesday, Obama’s health secretary rejected the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to allow the Plan B morning-after pill to be sold on drugstore shelves.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the expertise of the scientific team put together expressly to study the issue and the safety of this medication. In a proclamation worthy of the Bush team, Sebelius used her authority to implement her personal view that underage girls should not be able to buy Plan B on their own.
If only she could wave her magic wand and prevent those same underage girls from having sex and getting pregnant.
Despite significant progress in reducing the teen pregnancy rate, about 50,000 girls in California have unwanted pregnancies every year.
The FDA conducted extensive research and found that Plan B is safe and effective. It is already sold over the counter in more than 40 nations. Case closed. But not for Sebelius — nor, we can only assume, for Obama.
Plan B has not been found to promote promiscuity by women of any age. Nor has it been demonstrated to lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Yet this ruling, in effect, denies access to the pill for girls who may need it the most — victims of abuse by a member of the family, as one example. They would have to get a prescription for Plan B, and in many parts of the country — including rural California — it’s difficult to obtain one within 72 hours of unprotected sex, when the emergency contraception is most effective.
Sebelius knows this. But she is now on record as opposing Plan B being sold over the counter at drugstores unless a girl can prove she is older than 17. This is bad enough on its own. But it also heightens fears that it might be a precursor of things to come in an election year.
Obama is being heavily pressured by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to back away from his decision to require health insurance companies to cover contraception as preventive care, in effect making it available to women without co-payments. This is considered to be one of the most important health benefits for women — particularly low-income women — and is supported by more than 75 percent of Americans. Even before Wednesday, health advocates were worried that Obama would cave on it.
The Catholic Church can’t even convince its own members to adhere to its prohibition on birth control: 98 percent of Catholic women in the United States use some form of contraception. The public interest clearly lies in making safe birth control readily available to women of all income levels. Women who have unwanted pregnancies have increased health risks, primarily because they are less likely to get prenatal care. This substantially increases public health costs.
Sebelius’ decision on Plan B will cause real harm. Now Americans who had trusted Obama’s commitment to science and to women’s reproductive rights can only hope it’s not a harbinger of more harm to come.