A decision by the Obama administration to bar over-the-counter morning-after pills for minors is producing increasing outcry from liberal Democrats representing pro-choice and related women’s groups. They argue that the HHS secretary has done an about face on women’s reproductive rights in a matter of months.
In a Tuesday letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, 14 Senate Democrats express “disappointment” in the decision and demand that Sebelius detail the scientific reasoning behind it.
“On behalf of the millions of women we represent, we want to be assured that this and future decisions affecting women’s health will be based on medical and scientific evidence,” the senators wrote.
Two months ago, Sebelius strongly championed choice and accused Republicans of seeking to reverse reproductive progress for women, telling a room full of NARAL pro-choice activists that the Republican Party is threatening to roll back 50 years of reproductive choice gains.
Sebelius told the luncheon group that without Obama's health care reforms, insurers considered "Viagra an essential medication and birth control a lifestyle choice."
Some sources say the HHS decision may have been an attempt to appease Catholic groups outraged by recent decisions that either requires Catholic hospitals to provide contraceptives or limit funding for Catholic groups that don’t refer for abortions.
The letter questioning Sebelius’ about-face was sent from Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Carl Levin (D-Mich.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
The letter comes as the Center for Reproductive Rights, a pro-choice legal advocacy group, argued today in a New York federal court that the Food and Drug Administration is in contempt for failing to adhere to Judge Edward Korman’s 2009 ruling to consider open access to the controversial contraception pill to minor girls.
Emergency contraception, sold under the name Plan B, prevents already fertilized eggs from attaching to the uterine wall. FDA classifies the drug as a birth control pill. However, some pro-lifers, especially in the Catholic Church, believe it is a chemical abortion pill.
After stalling a decision on unfettered access to emergency contraception for more than a year, Sebelius on Dec. 7 overruled FDA recommendations for Plan B One-Step and banned its sale to girls under age 17.
Last week, the Obama administration seemed to be the one regressing on Korman’s 2009 order and changing medical standards for young women.
Sebelius explained the decision, saying manufacturer Teva Pharmaceuticals did not conclusively establish that the product is suitable for over-the-counter use for girls of all ages.
She defended, “It is common knowledge that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age," referring to girls age 11.
She also denied any political motivations such as the upcoming 2012 presidential elections.
The FDA was reportedly poised to approve Plan B One-Step for over-the-counter, unrestricted use based on a "body of scientific findings, input from external scientific advisory committees, and data contained in the application that included studies designed to specifically address the regulatory standards for nonprescription drugs."
The HHS secretary’s decision was positive development for pro-life advocates such as the Christian group American Life League who believe the progesterone-like drug is a chemical abortion pill.
Women's groups, who believed the Obama administration to be a political ally, have excoriated the apparent flip-flop.
CRR President Nancy Northup stated last week, "Six years ago, we sued the [George W.] Bush administration for rejecting science and playing politics with women's health by denying emergency contraception for over-the-counter sale. We are stunned to see the same behavior from the Obama administration.”
The CRR, as well as the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals and National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, filed Tummino v. Von Hamburg to challenge the FDA’s decision to restrict access to emergency contraception. In 2009, Korman ruled in favor of the women’s groups and ordered the FDA to act within 30 days to extend over-the-counter access to 17-year-olds.
He also ordered the agency to consider a citizen petition the groups filed to reverse restrictions that require females younger than 17 to have a prescription to obtain emergency conception. The citizen petition also asks to overturn requirements that emergency contraception be kept behind the counter and sold only at pharmacies and health clinics to persons with government-issued IDs.
The FDA changed the access age to 17 but has continued to delay a decision on the citizen petition, prompting CRR to file a 2010 motion for contempt against the court’s ruling. Its hearing is scheduled for Dec. 13.
Northup chided the administration, stating, "It is unacceptable that the approval for drugs supporting women's reproductive health is held to a completely different standard."
Obama spokesman Nick Papas has defended Sebelius and the FDA saying, “As the secretary has stated, Plan B will remain available to all women who need it, and the president supports the secretary's decision."
Teresa Tomeo, a syndicated Catholic talk show host and bestselling author, supports Sebelius’ decision but hopes the emergency contraceptive pill will eventually be outlawed.