Inquirer Editorial: Wrong decision for the morning after

MARGARET SCOTT
MARGARET SCOTT
Posted: December 13, 2011

It's hard to see how politics played no role in the Obama administration's decision not to let teenage girls buy the emergency-contraception, morning-after pill known as Plan B.

With the White House's first reversal of a Food and Drug Administration decision, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has set a dangerous precedent. But give FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg credit for publicly defending her position in a rare public split with the Obama administration.

Sebelius expressed concern that girls as young as 11 might not use Plan B properly. Her decision last week means Plan B will be available without a prescription only to women who can prove that they are at least 17.

President Obama said he supported Sebelius' decision, citing his personal concern as a father of two young daughters. "I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine," he said.

Obama has been a strong advocate of reproductive rights, which made his position more disappointing. Critics voiced concern that, going into an election year, he decided to take a conservative position on the controversial morning-after pill.

Advocates have made a strong case for giving teenage girls easier access to emergency contraception because they may be more likely to need it. Proponents also noted that Plan B is sold over the counter in more than 40 countries.

Quick access is essential. Plan B works best when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. The high-dose birth-control pill can cut the chances of pregnancy as much as 89 percent.

Making it more difficult for girls to get the morning-after pill is unlikely to affect the number of them having sex. But the pill could help reduce the number of abortions in this country. Nearly two-thirds of births to women younger than age 18 are unintended, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Obama said Sebelius didn't want girls to be able to buy Plan B "alongside bubble gum or batteries." Sebelius said she worried that girls as young as 11 would misread the label. She and the president wrongly focused on the lesser likelihood of an 11-year-old wanting Plan B instead of on the much more common cases in which a 15-year-old will need it.

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