In Emergency Contraception Decision, Obama Administration Undermines Young People and Women’s Health

In a deeply dismaying move, President Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services have spurned the clear-cut medical science backing over-the-counter availability of Plan B-One Step — and in doing so they’ve revealed their willingness to sacrifice the rights and health of women and young people for the sake of appeasing social conservatives.

Who knew? The federal guardians of our health and health care are the newest spokespeople for the President’s 2012 election campaign.

Here’s the short of it: the Food and Drug Administration put forward a recommendation that Plan B-One Step emergency contraception be made available without a prescription to all women — whenever they needed it and regardless of age. This would have been a huge step forward. Emergency contraception is more effective the sooner you take it, so removing any extra steps like getting a prescription or dealing with a pharmacist (who might stigmatize someone asking for Plan B or refuse to fill the prescription at all) can make a huge difference, especially for younger women.

Indeed, the current rules — which require a prescription for anyone under age 17 — have an enormous impact on all young women because you need an ID to prove your age and buy emergency contraception without a prescription. Recent data show that 18% of 18 to 24-year-olds lack a government-issued photo ID, which means nearly 1 in 5 people might be blocked from purchasing EC when they need it most.

The FDA’s ruling would have been fantastic news — until HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius seems to have caved to political pressure and overruled the FDA’s recommendation. In her bizarre statement announcing this decision, Secretary Sebelius effectively blames young women for her own political cowardice, saying we can’t be sure that younger women will understand how to take Plan B One-Step effective. (HINT: It involves taking one pill. That’s why it’s called Plan B-One Step.) You have to go decades back to find a previous instance of HHS reversing any FDA decision — ever. It just doesn’t happen. And it certainly doesn’t happen without the President’s approval.

If the fight over back-up birth control sounds familiar, that is because this is the same fight that’s been going on since President Bush promoted ideology and politics over science in his administration — but we’d been given reason to hope those days were behind us. In 2009, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum committing his administration to champion science; however, today’s decision is an outright rejection of science by his administration.

“Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health…The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.”

- From a March 2009 Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity

The FDA’s recommendation to expand emergency contraceptive access to all women was based on exhaustive and peer-reviewed medical science. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine all support access to emergency contraception for all females of reproductive age, yet once again those in power are more interested in staying there than in the health and well-being of women.

Smell politics, anyone? The FDA’s recommendation to expand emergency contraceptive access to young people was based on exhaustive and peer-reviewed medical science. The fact that another federal government agency would so readily undermine medical science points to a horribly short-sighted and purely election-based calculus: In order to impress right-wing voters upset by his administration’s earlier decision to extend health care coverage to include contraception, President Obama has decided to surrender the rights of young people and young women in the interest of jacking up his poll numbers.

Here at Advocates for Youth, we see what happens to young people when their basic rights aren’t respected. We meet people like Tanisha (click here to watch and listen to her recent remarks at a Congressional briefing), a student at Georgetown University, who had to confront terrible stigma and a total lack of support in using emergency contraception. In denying young people access to Plan B-One Step — and in concocting a lame excuse that dismisses young people’s agency and their ability to make informed decisions about their sexual health — President Obama is in effect telling Tanisha something she should never hear: your voice doesn’t count.

When the evidence gets trampled, politics is usually at play. The Obama administration probably believes that young people don’t fully realize this, but they do. And they’re going to push back.

TAKE ACTION: Tell the President to put politics aside and instruct Secretary Sebelius to reverse her decision.

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