New day for the morning-after pill

Plan B will soon be available without prescription to 17 year olds and, maybe, all women

Published March 24, 2009 1:42PM (EDT)

Since 2006, women over 18 have been free to buy the morning-after pill (Plan B) over the counter. But despite the drug's demonstrated safety, younger women must obtain a prescription to buy it. Now, that ridiculous regulation is about to change, thanks to a federal judge in my home borough of Brooklyn. Yesterday, Judge Edward R. Korman ruled that the F.D.A. must make Plan B available over the counter to women ages 17 and up. He gave the administration 30 days to issue an order enabling the pill's manufacturer to make the change. And that's not all: Korman has also ordered the F.D.A. to consider making Plan B available without prescription to women of all ages.

Obviously, this is great news. But what's most interesting to me about the decision is Korman's harsh criticism of the Bush-era F.D.A.'s misconduct regarding Plan B, as described by the New York Times:

Judge Korman wrote that officials of the agency had repeatedly delayed action on the petition, moving only when members of Congress threatened to hold up confirmation hearings on acting F.D.A. commissioners. Several officials also violated the agency’s own policies, he wrote.

Citing depositions, Judge Korman wrote that agency officials had improperly communicated with White House officials about Plan B. And, he said, F.D.A. employees sought to influence decisions by appointing people with anti-abortion views to an independent panel of experts reviewing Plan B for the agency.

The agency also departed from its normal procedures, the judge wrote, by ignoring favorable conclusions about the drug by an advisory panel as well its own scientists and officials who found that the drug could be safely used by women at least as young as 17.

Such “political considerations, delays and implausible justifications” showed that the F.D.A. had acted without good faith or reasoned decision making, Judge Korman wrote.

To summarize: All our fears about the F.D.A. under Bush were justified.

What's especially encouraging about Korman's decision is its timing. Earlier this month, President Obama nominated Dr. Margaret Hamburg to head the F.D.A. Although no reputable news sources are discussing Hamburg's stance on reproductive rights, it's encouraging to see that she opposes abstinence-only sex education for the prevention of H.I.V. And in a letter to the Times, National Institute for Reproductive Health President Kelli Conlin applauds the appointment, noting that Hamburg "oversaw abortion counseling and family planning centers, as well as pregnancy prevention programs."  So, when the F.D.A. re-evaluates the data on allowing all women to buy Plan B without a prescription, the idea may finally get a fair shake.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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