Duped Again on Emergency Contraception

, former deputy director, Center for Science & Democracy | May 1, 2013, 8:37 pm EDT
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I feel like Charlie Brown.

A few weeks ago, I celebrated as a federal judge ordered the FDA to follow the medical evidence and make the emergency contraception known as “Plan B” available over the counter without restrictions. Under both President Obama and his predecessor, the decision had been thoroughly politicized. I thought that the judge’s ruling would provide the Obama administration with political cover. Surely they would respect the decision.

I was wrong. This week, the Obama administration gave science a one-two punch.

Late yesterday, the FDA announced it would approve non-prescription sales for women fifteen years and older for sale on store shelves. Buyers will still be required to prove their age.  This is certainly an improvement—more older women with IDs will have access to the drug at more times (not just from a pharmacist when the pharmacy is open). But many fifteen and sixteen-year-old females do not possess legal ID with birthdates, making access difficult. Both the age and ID restrictions are not in compliance with the judge’s order or the best available science.

And then today, the Department of Justice announced it is appealing the judge’s ruling.

Here’s how I imagine it went down.

President Obama at NAS

President Obama speaks at the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, April 29, 2013 where he pledged “fidelity to facts and truth.” Photo: White House.

The judge made his ruling. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg did a little happy dance, thinking that science, at last, would rule the day. The White House, however, was hearing from interest groups unhappy with the judge’s ruling. So Commissioner Hamburg got another phone call from the White House: sorry, we’ll be appealing the decision. So she did the best she could and approved an out-of-date application from the drug’s manufacturer that provides somewhat better access to the drug.

Then, the next day, the Department of Justice announced its appeal. Pretty neat. There was no public skirmish this time between the FDA and the Secretary of Health and Human Services; the FDA went as far as it could (by doing its best to make a science-based decision) and the DOJ was left to do the dirty work.

And here’s the kicker:  the administration’s actions came less than 48 hours after the president told the National Academy of Sciences that it was essential for this country to embrace “fidelity to facts and truth, and a willingness to follow where the evidence leads.” He went on to say the following:

“One of the things that I’ve tried to do over these last four years and will continue to do over the next four years is to make sure that we are promoting the integrity of our scientific process…we’ve got to make sure that we are supporting the idea that they’re not subject to politics, that they’re not skewed by an agenda, that, as I said before, we make sure that we go where the evidence leads us.”

Well, sometimes, at least.

More than a year ago, I helped organize several scientists and women’s health experts to testify before the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. One by one, they went before the panel to explain their dismay at the Obama administration’s politicization of science, urging the president’s advisors to weigh in with White House leaders.

If PCAST said anything, it must have fallen on deaf ears.

The advisory group is meeting again this Friday. I had enough faith that the administration would do the right thing that I didn’t encourage anyone to testify this time around. I thought that this time we were going to kick the football right through the goalposts.

Wrong again.

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  • Elliot Taubman

    Once again we have an abstinence argument. The SCIENCE says it does not work. Sex is one of the two strongest drives in nature (the other is food). The Puritanical roots of our country (e.g. Witch burning and the expulsion of Anne Hutchinson, in a trial held where UCS is based) just keeps on raising its ugly, unloved head. I will defend the writers’ right to comment, but they have no scientific basis.

    On the other hand, while I was also disheartened by what the Obama Administration did, I believe Halperin is too extreme. Comparing Obama to GW is just unfair. A good example are the most recent environmental and energy appointments. It is precisely because the proposed nominees DO support science why reactionaries are against them.

    • Michael Halpern

      Hi Elliott, thanks for the chance to clarify my thoughts on this. I do believe that on this particular issue, the actions of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations are pretty similar. The scientists with expertise in reproductive health determined that over the counter distribution of Plan B is safe for women of all ages, which requires the FDA to approve it. (Other studies, incidentally, have found that more access to this type of contraception does not encourage promiscuity. You are also right that Plan B is not the abortion pill).

      Under both presidents, political appointees stepped in to prevent the FDA from doing its job. The main difference is that under President Obama, it was clear that the FDA commissioner wanted to follow the evidence–she said so–but was ordered to refrain from approving the drug for over the counter sales.

      That said, overall the Obama administration has treated science and government scientists better than the previous one. We’ve seen political interference in science on some issues under President Obama–such as ground-level ozone pollution and silica dust exposure–but there is less of it, partially due to leadership and partially due to policy changes (such as the development of agency scientific integrity policies). The evidence for the improvement is both anecdotal and quantitative; see, for example, our survey of scientists at FDA showing that there have been some improvements: http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/abuses_of_science/fda-survey-shows-progress.html .

      See also our recent media policy scorecard showing that many agencies have improved public and reporter access to government scientists and scientific information (at least on paper): http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/solutions/agency-specific_solutions/grading-government-transparency.html

  • Rebecca

    The morning after pill should not be equated with abortion. It is an emergency measure, used before a woman even knows she’s pregnant, and expensive enough to discourage casual use. J, I daresay if you’d had the choice of taking this pill after your youthful indiscretion, you would have leapt at the chance, and prevented the abortion.

  • J Mitchell

    As a liberated woman who had an abortion back in the 70s, I am no longer for it. Not only was it heartless and disgusting, I consider it murder. Most women that have had them, if they are honest, will attest to the emotional damage it inflicted on them for the rest of their lives. Sounds like an easy out but it isn’t. If women want real choice they should also be responsible and just say no to unprotected sex or sex in general. We have become such a hedonistic society that we soon will fall from our own selfishness… just like Rome. I suppose this will not be published as you don’t agree.

    • Iris Smith

      I agree!