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May 31st, 2013

Obama Administration Moves to Limit Girls’ Access to Emergency Contraception


The Obama administration is fighting a judge’s order that would allow girls of all ages prescription-free access to Plan B, a pill that drastically lowers the chance of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

NY Federal Judge Overrules FDA Over-The-Counter Ban On Emergency Contraception Pill

Emergency contraceptives like Plan B prevent pregnancy by delaying or inhibiting ovulation. Depending on the pharmacy, the pill can cost anywhere from $10 to $70.

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) prior ruling allowed girls 17 and older to buy the drug without a doctor’s prescription. Pharmacies are required to keep the drug behind the counter. Girls under the age of 17 seeking to prevent an unwanted pregnancy have to visit a doctor in order to get a prescription for the pill.

Argument is messy intersection of medical research and politics

The battle over age limits began in 2005 when members of women’s groups filed a lawsuit against the FDA’s restriction on emergency contraceptive, saying it was “arbitrary and capricious” and “not the result of reasoned and good faith agency decision-making.”

Judge Edward Korman ruled in favor of the women’s groups in 2009, and ordered the FDA to allow Plan B’s manufacturer to come up with an evidence-based answer to whether to allow over-the-counter access to younger girls, and to consider lifting age restrictions altogether.

However, the case was reopened three years later when Kathleen Sebelius, the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, overruled the FDA’s plan to approve sales of Plan B for all women regardless of age.

The judge stood by his ruling, saying the administration’s position requiring women to prove their age would disadvantage young, poor and minority women who are less likely to have an identification card.

The FDA has now approved the sale of emergency contraceptives to women over the age of 15. It will be sold in pharmacies and will be displayed on the shelf, but a chip in the packaging will alert the cashier to check for ID.

Judge Korman, meanwhile, ordered the government to allow all girls to have access to the pills without a prescription.

The Obama administration backs Secretary Sebelius and the U.S. Justice Department who deny the Judge Korman has the right to issue such an order.

Graphic via SodaHead, using data from a Fox News poll.

Graphic via SodaHead from April 9, 2013, using data from a Fox News poll.


Consequences for young women

The policy resulting from this legal battle will have real consequences for young girls, who are reaching puberty at earlier ages and are more likely to have unintended pregnancies.

Supporters of over-the-counter access to emergency contraception say opening up the sale of Plan B would help young women avoid having a baby before they are ready, increasing their control over their own health and lives.

“Unintended pregnancies pose a significant risk to the physical and emotional health of adolescents,” said Thomas K. McInerny, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “While pediatricians recommend that teens delay sexual activity until they fully understand its consequences, we strongly encourage the use of contraception—including emergency contraception—to protect the health of our adolescent patients who are sexually active.”

On the other side, many people feel that young girls should have parental and doctor supervision and guidance over decisions related to their sexual activity and health.

“This decision shows an alarming lack of concern for the safety of young girls, the fundamental rights of parents, and concerns of the medical community,” said Anna Higgins of the Family Research Council. “Instead of allowing unfettered access to potentially dangerous drugs to teens, parent-teen communication regarding the medical and moral issues involved with sexual behavior should be encouraged.”

While it seems the FDA tried to compromise by moving the age limit from 17 to 15, the judge in the original case continues to argue that the age limit is arbitrary and political, and only creates problems for younger girls who might face unwanted pregnancies.

— Compiled by Elise Garofalo for NewsHour Extra

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