Editorial: Plan B appeal a setback for public health

Obama had vowed not to let politics interfere with science.
Obama had vowed not to let politics interfere with science.
Published May 6, 2013

President Barack Obama told an audience at the National Academy of Sciences last month that his administration would not let politics interfere with science. Now the president has broken that promise. The Justice Department has announced that it will appeal a federal court ruling that grants unlimited access to emergency contraception for younger teens. What is certain is that Obama is sacrificing the reproductive freedom and health of girls by ignoring the evidence and playing politics.

Emergency contraception, often called the morning-after pill, is a safe, effective product that prevents unwanted and potentially dangerous pregnancy for all women and girls of child-bearing age. It works by blocking the release of an egg and is most effective if taken within three days of unprotected sex. Antiabortion activists claim the drug causes a chemical abortion, which is inaccurate. They have fiercely opposed all moves to make it more available. Never mind that giving teens access to emergency contraception reduces the need for surgical abortions.

Politics has interfered with this issue from the start. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that the emergency contraceptive drug Plan B be available without a prescription and without regard to age. It would mean teens wouldn't have to worry that one mistake could be ruinous. But Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius refused to adopt the collective scientific judgment while Obama sought re-election and instead approved the drug for over-the-counter use only for women age 17 and up.

This transparently political decision was overturned by a federal district judge in New York last month who said the age limits were unreasonable. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman ordered the administration to make emergency contraception widely available.

For the administration this could have been a public relations escape route. Girls would have an essential protection against unwanted pregnancy and the administration could claim it was under court orders. By appealing the ruling, the Justice Department is wasting taxpayer money on a case it should lose, alienating its political allies and making it more likely that teens will end up pregnant.

The appeal announcement came as the FDA said it will allow teens as young as 15 to obtain Plan B without a prescription and said the drug can be displayed on store shelves. It's a small step forward. Teens will still have to prove their age for purchase, and they might not have the legal identification necessary.

The Obama administration put politics before science and public health by filing the appeal, which is exactly what the president promised he would not do.