Obama, finally, surrenders to science

    One good thing happened this week. President Obama finally gave up his fight to put politics ahead of science.

    After 18 months of resistance, he announced on Monday that he would permit emergency contraception – the “Plan B” morning-after pill – to be sold over the counter to girls and women all ages.

    Federal judges, including a Ronald Reagan appointee, had ruled that the pill be made fully available, and Obama decided not to buck the courts any longer. He essentially flip flopped, but this one was long overdue.

    To govern is to choose, as the old saying goes, and in this particular case Obama had chosen to govern in a way that pleased nobody. Back in December 2011, when he summarily nixed the Food and Drug Administration’s imminent plans to approve the pill for all ages without prescription (side effects were minimal, according to all the science), he ticked off his own followers – especially the women’s health advocates who seek to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies.

    And even though his No stance should seemingly have pleased the conservative “family values” folks, especially since he spoke “as the father of two daughters,” it did not please those folks at all. Because they actually saw his stance for what it was – a blatant attempt to position himself politically on the eve of his 2012 re-election bid. He wanted middle America to see him as a traditional dad. Had he stood by and allowed the FDA to proceed, he was worried that his future Republican opponent would gain ground with mom and dad voters by painting him as a permissive liberal on teenage sex.

    At least when George W. Bush blocked the morning-after pill, he did it for sincere moral reasons. The FDA originally vetted the pill as safe and effective back in 1999 – that’s how long the fight has been waged; 1999 was so long ago that the first Matrix movie was new – and in 2001, 70 medical and public health organizations petitioned the new Bush administration to make it available over the counter. In response, the Bush team pressured the FDA not to approve it, and threatened to fire anyone in the agency who tried to.

    Five years later, in 2006, Bush’s FDA loosened up a bit. More science had been conducted, further demonstrating that Plan B was safe and effective, so the agency OK’d over-the-counter sale, but only for women 18 or older. They had to ask the pharmacist for the drug and prove their age. That’s basically been the deal ever since, although Obama’s FDA had plans last month to drop the age limit to 15.

    What really angered women’s health groups, on the eve of the 2012 campaign, was Obama’s claim (delivered by his health secretary, Kathleen Sebelius) that younger girls would not know how to use the pill. In her words, there was insufficient evidence “to show that those who use this medicine can understand the label and use the product inappropriately.” Which was a load of hooey, because the science didn’t show that at all.

    As a New England Journal of Medicine study concluded in January 2012, Obama’s decision  “was based on politics rather than science. It cannot be based on issues of safety, since a 12-year-old can purchase a lethal dose of acetaminophen in any pharmacy for about $11, no questions asked. The only documented adverse effects of a $50 dose of (the morning-after pill) are nausea and delay of (her period) by several days. Any objective review makes it clear that Plan B is more dangerous to politicians than to adolescent girls. Thus, we once again have a situation in which political considerations are forming the basis of public health policy – resulting in another sad day for women.”

    And Edward Korman, the key federal judge in this case, fully concurred. Two months ago, the Reagan appointee ruled that, based on the science, Plan B shall be made available without prescription to females of any age. He said that the administration’s bid to block availability was “scientifically justified…an election year decision…a politically motivated effort to avoid riling religious groups.”

    As you can see, this issue crosses ideological lines; we have a Reagan judge saying yes to a contraceptive pill, and upbraiding a Democratic president who said no. Meanwhile, all sides are spinning like a top. Obama insists that hes still personally opposed to full access for all ages, even though he has given up the legal fight. Meanwhile, the right-wing groups that never applauded him for fighting are now assailing him for not fighting (Americans United For Life: “We’re seeing the Obama administration completely surrender any principle of defending women’s health to the politics of big abortion”).

    Whatever. All that really matters, going forward, is women and girls will be more fully empowered to reduce unplanned, unintended pregnancies – finally. The rest is just political noise.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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