Restoring reason at the FDA

It's official. Seventeen year-olds now get a second chance to prevent pregnancy as easily as older women do. The FDA, per order of the White House, extended over-the-counter access to emergency contraception, also known as the morning after pill, to 17-year-olds April 23.

We'll have to wait until tomorrow, the morning after, to find out whether society as we know it ends. That's long been the prediction of groups like the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America who view the move to make contraception more available as something like a mandatory draft for Girls Gone Wild.

Wendy Wright, President of CWFA, wrote in USA Today in 2005 supporting a widely lambasted decision by the Bush FDA to reject all scientific arguments about the effectiveness and safety of the drug. Instead the Bush FDA sided with ideological and religious extremists to deny over-the-counter access to emergency contraception for every woman. (The decision was later revisited and emergency contraception access OTC was granted for adult women but denied for minors).

In the piece, Wright accused women’s health advocates of conspiring to promote a culture of promiscuity with the intent of boosting sales of emergency contraceptives. She wrote, “In pursuit of more sales, advocates encourage multiple sex partners and frequent use, without concern for putting women at risk of STDs.”

Of course, emergency contraception (EC) has been widely available in other countries for years and so we have ample experience on which to evaluate Wright’s predictions.

A 2005 study published in the British Medical Journal found “Making emergency hormonal contraception available over the counter does not seem to have led to an increase in its use, to an increase in unprotected sex, or to a decrease in the use of more reliable methods of contraception.”

Behind all of the arguments against EC over-the-counter access lurks a persistent notion that women, and now in particular teens, are engaging in irresponsible behavior. Wright and her anti-contraception colleagues, though, talk themselves into a corner (the problem when you reject reasonable answers). On one hand they appear to view teens as completely unable to make responsible decisions for themselves i.e. the availability of contraception will make them run wild.

At the same time, teens apparently have it so together that they will be both determined and quick-acting in order to prevent an unintended pregnancy. Seems like those teens most likely to use emergency contraception are, by definition, taking responsibility for their actions.

In a statement released today, Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood of America summed up that view perfectly, “The U.S. has the highest rate of teen pregnancy among the most developed countries in the world. Providing birth control, including emergency birth control, to young women helps them make responsible decisions and avoid unintended pregnancy.”

Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council have clearly huddled on talking points. Another thematic in their press statements about the Obama decision is emergency contraception is unsafe.

Yet, the 2003 application to the FDA to grant the over-the-counter access to emergency contraception -- or -- Plan B -- won unanimous support from all leading medical groups, including the most prestigious medical groups representing adolescents such as from The Society for Adolescent Medicine, the American Pediatric Association not to mention all women's health groups.

Even Bush's own FDA panelists noted that Plan B was the safest drug they had ever considered to grant to over-the counter status.

No matter. According to Concerned Women for America, in a statement released today, 'Parents should be furious that the FDA is putting their minor daughters at risk.'

The Family Research Council continued the refrain, 'Furthermore, the FDA-approved label for Plan B gives no clear indication that repeated use of Plan B in a short period of time is not safe.'

The era during which the likes of the religious Wright (pun intended) held sway on what should rightfully be medical and scientific decisions are, thankfully, over. And no group seems more relieved than the non-ideological researchers who’d watched years of hard earned effort for scientific integrity wasted in a matter of months.

It’s telling that no one at the FDA has voiced a problem with the unprecedented mandate from the President Obama to overturn the decision. Conversely, senior staff resigned from the FDA over the political/ideological handling of the application during the Bush years and the Christian right’s destructive influence on agency policy.

A new day is at hand. Vindication is the order of business. Today we have prevailed and 17 year old women are the victors. We’ve always known Wright is wrong. The sweetest victory is her new found irrelevance.