The Food and Drug Administration finally approved over-the-counter sales of the contraceptive Plan B to women 18 and older, the New York Times reports. To purchase the "morning-after pill," as it is widely known, women will have to show proof of age. (Those under 18 will still need a prescription.) In a memo released this morning addressing the age restriction, acting FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach wrote, "This approach builds on well-established state and private-sector infrastructures to restrict certain products to consumers 18 and older." (However, products like cigarettes and cold medicines have never been proven to help prevent unwanted pregnancy.)
For the last three years, approval of over-the-counter access has been mired in a nasty case of politics trumping science. Indeed, according to the New York Times, Florence Houn, director of the office that evaluated the Plan B application, said that she was told by Janet Woodcock, a deputy FDA commissioner, that a rejection of the application was initially necessary "to appease the administrations constituents, and then later this could be approved." (Note: for a complete chronology, click here.) Peter Barton Hutt, a former general counsel for the FDA who now teaches drug law at Harvard, told the Times that he could not recall "any other issue in my 45 years of watching FDA that has garnered this much attention at all levels of government."
In a statement released today by Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards, the organization hailed the FDA's decision, but said it is "troubled by the scientifically baseless restriction imposed on teenagers. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the western world -- anything that makes it harder for teenagers to avoid unintended pregnancy is bad medicine and bad public policy." PPFA promises to "do all it can to educate women of all ages about EC and help them access emergency contraception."
While abortion rights advocates like PPFA have argued that over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill could prevent "up to 1.5 million unintended pregnancies -- and 800,000 abortions -- a year," the New York Times questions this estimate. "Even if the pills were passed out like lollipops," writes the Times, "they would be unlikely to cause a major change in abortion and disease rates" because, as studies suggest, couples in the U.S. have so much unprotected sex. (Clearly students need to pay more attention in abstinence-only class.)