By Amanda Marcotte
The views expressed are her own.
Wednesday morning Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA’s long-awaited decision taking age restrictions off Plan B emergency contraception. The change would have allowed those 16 and under to buy Plan B, moving it from behind the pharmacist counter and into the shelves alongside aspirin and condoms. But now that won’t happen.
The decision confounded the medical community as well as the women’s rights world. Since no HHS Secretary has ever overruled an FDA decision of this sort before, the widespread assumption, best articulated by Matt Langer at Wonkette, was that Sebelius was working under “marching orders from an administration now fully in re-election mode” and fearful of getting a reputation as somehow “soft” on teen sexual activity.
Sebelius admitted to no political calculation, and instead claimed to be concerned about supposedly inadequate research into the effects on 11- and 12-year-olds who might use the pill. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, no doubt irate at being told she and her entire team don’t know how to do their job as well as non-medical professional Sebelius, denounced this argument, and defended the extensive research done to assure that Plan B was safe for over-the-counter sales. Taking into account the evidence, and the drawn-out political battle over emergency contraception, it’s safe to say that Sebelius did choose political pandering over women and girls’ best interests.
Sebelius was remarkably vague with her concerns about the differences between those under and over 16 years old when it comes to using Plan B. There’s no reason to believe even the youngest girls who access the drug are in any physical danger, which is why groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics support its use for their young patients in need. Emergency contraception is simply a single, high dose of the birth control pill, a drug that girls in the first years of reproductive age (and women far older than them) have been using for decades on a daily basis for contraception and other health reasons. (One formulation of the daily version of the pill, Ortho Tri Cyclen, is even marketed directly to teenagers to control acne.) The most serious common side effect of correctly-taken Plan B is nausea which tends to last for a few hours. (As opposed to the months of nausea that come along with pregnancy.)
The lack of evidence of physical danger to young teenagers taking the pill correctly meant Sebelius was left with mealy-mouthed claims that the dangers to young teenagers were due to the unique inability of girls 11 to 16 to understand the instructions and take the pill properly. She claimed that “there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age,” and then provided no evidence to support the contention that girls 11 to 16 cannot be expected to take the pill correctly.