Duped Again on Emergency Contraception

May 1, 2013
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

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 So she did the best she could and approved an out-of-date application from the drug’s manufacturer that provides somewhat better access to the drug.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.