Last year, President Obama failed to reconsider an ill-advised decision to restrict access to the Plan B emergency birth-control drug.
Obama stood by his health secretary’s move to keep the drug behind pharmacy counters and unavailable to girls 16 and under without a prescription.
Fortunately, a federal judge in New York stepped in April 5 to lift those restrictions. The judge overturned the ban that prevented females under 17 from purchasing emergency contraceptive pills over the counter.
The decision was a victory for women who need another option to prevent unplanned pregnancies. The ruling also served as a pointed reprimand for a politically motivated decision that set aside sound science and the health needs of young girls in favor of political considerations.
If the administration doesn’t appeal the decision, the pill could move from behind pharmacy counters to drugstore shelves as soon as mid-May.
The case involves the so-called morning-after pill, Plan B One-Step, and its generic versions, which can prevent pregnancy if taken soon after intercourse, preferably in the first 24 hours. The pill contains more progestin hormone than is in regular birth-control pills; taking it within 72 hours after intercourse can reduce the chances of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent.
Major medical groups and researchers have long recommended unrestricted access to the pill, but the federal government has resisted for for more than a decade. Finally in 2011, after a careful review of evidence showing that the emergency contraceptive pill was safe and effective and that younger girls could understand how to use it, the Food and Drug Administration approved its use for females of all ages, without a prescription.
But that didn’t convince Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The age restriction should stay in place, they argued, because too little research had been done on how the drug could affect preteens or on whether they understood how to use the pills. Sebelius also noted that a small percentage of girls as young as 11 are able to have children and would have access to the pill.
Adding 11-year-olds to the debate was unnecessarily provocative. Fewer than 1 percent of 11-year-old girls have had sex, but close to half of girls — most beginning at 15 or 16 — have had sex by age 17. Those girls, who sometimes find it difficult to talk with parents or a doctor, should have access to the drug.
Though the administration said it maintained the restrictions out of concern for younger teens, there was widespread speculation that politics drove the decision. The 2012 election was on the horizon when the decision was made, and the action was seen as a concession to the antiabortion, anti-birth-control faction of voters.
That’s exactly how the court saw it. In his scathing decision, Judge Edward R. Korman of the Eastern District of New York accused the administration of a ‘‘bad faith’’ decision that was ‘‘politically motivated, scientifically unjustified and contrary to agency precedent.’’
The court rightly supported greater access to birth-control options, and so does most research. The Centers for Disease Control reports that the U.S. teen birth and abortion rates dropped steadily between 2009 and 2011 to record lows. Surveys indicate that the number of teens having sex didn’t drop. Instead, younger sexually active teens increasingly used birth control, including emergency contraceptives.
It was disappointing to see the president, who had earlier promised “to return science to its rightful place,’’ stray so far away from that principle. And even after the court ruling, a White House spokesperson says the president supports the restrictions.
Our hope is that he will not act on that opinion and appeal the court’s decision. The administration should let the ruling stand as a significant milestone for women’s reproductive health.