Plan B: Budget cuts

Is this the beginning of the end for the Office of Women's Health?

By Catherine Price
Published February 27, 2007 11:35PM (EST)

Whoa. The lead from this article in the Washington Post asks: "When is $4 million really $2.8 million?" The answer? "'When you are the Office of Women's Health within the Food and Drug Administration,'" the Post's Rick Weiss continues. "That office, which was at the center of a politically damaging storm over the emergency contraceptive 'Plan B,' just had more than one-quarter of this year's $4 million operating budget quietly removed, insiders say."

I'm sorry, what? According to the Post, the office had requested $4 million for the 2007 fiscal year, the same amount as it's gotten for the past several years. Congress approved the budget. But news has leaked that the FDA has decided to hold $1.2 million of that funding for use elsewhere in the agency.

As the Post reports, "Because the remaining $2.8 million has already been spent or allocated for salaries and started projects, the office must effectively halt further operations for the rest of the year, according to a high-level agency official with knowledge of the budget plan."

I want to think this is just a conspiracy theory, but according to the Post, "women's health advocates inside and outside the agency suspect they are witnessing, at least in part, a long-anticipated payback for the trouble the office stirred during the prolonged debate over nonprescription sales of Plan B." (For anyone who doesn't remember, the controversy around the emergency contraceptive was so fierce that the office's director, Susan Wood, resigned in 2005 over the issue; eventually, a compromise was reached that allowed people over 18 to buy Plan B over the counter.)

Other people, like Martha Nolan at the Society for Women's Health Research, worry that the potential budget cut might signal the beginning of the end of the Office of Women's Health.

That'd be fine by me if it were just a vacuous bureaucratic agency that didn't do anything. But that's not the case. Since its founding in 1994, the Office of Women's Health has funded studies that have produced over 200 articles in scientific journals about previously underaddressed questions, like how sex-based biological differences might affect the ways in which men and women should be medically treated. It also has produced heavily requested information on subjects like menopause, osteoporosis, pregnancy and, oops, birth control.

The FDA's commissioner, Andrew C. von Eschenbach, is scheduled to talk about the agency's budget to the Senate appropriations subcommittee Tuesday (he'll talk to the House Wednesday). Here's hoping that the Post got the story wrong, and the Office of Women's Health's budget remains intact.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

MORE FROM Catherine Price

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Birth Control Broadsheet Love And Sex Pregnancy