Leaders of groups that push for reproductive health rights for women were stunned last week when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius refused to make emergency contraception more easily available.
Groups frequently allied with Sebelius criticized the decision by the former Kansas governor to keep Plan B One-Step behind the counter at pharmacies and require that girls under 17 continue to need a prescription for the contraceptive.
Sebelius’ decision overruled a recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration that Plan B was “safe and effective and should be approved for nonprescription use for all females of childbearing potential.” Taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, Plan B can prevent pregnancy by restricting ovulation or blocking the implantation of a fertilized egg.
But Sebelius said she was concerned that the FDA recommendation would have allowed girls as young as 11 to buy the contraceptive. She concluded “that the data provided as part of the actual use study and the label comprehension study are not sufficient to support making Plan B One-Step available to all girls 16 and younger, without talking to a health care professional.”
When asked, President Barack Obama weighed in on the issue, saying he supported Sebelius’ decision.
“I will say this, as the father of two 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. And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drugstore, should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect,” Obama said.
The Guttmacher Institute, whose stated mission is to advance sexual and reproductive health rights, said Sebelius’ example of an 11-year-old girl was specious.
Fewer than 1 percent of 11-year-old girls have had sexual intercourse, but nearly half of girls have had sex by their 17th birthday, the group said. And the Institute noted that if Sebelius is concerned about young girls misunderstanding the labels, there are many over-the-counter medicines that young people can buy that can have fatal side effects.
“Emergency contraception is more effective the sooner it is used, so it is critical that women of all ages are able to get it quickly and easily, without having to jump through unnecessary hoops,” said Sharon Camp, president and chief executive officer of the Guttmacher Institute.
“Secretary Sebelius’ decision to ignore the scientific evidence and keep Plan B One-Step off the shelves of local grocery stores and pharmacies is a huge disappointment,” she said.
And in Kansas, the abortion rights group Trust Women also voiced its displeasure with Sebelius’ decision.
“For a Health and Human Services secretary to overturn a carefully thought out decision by the FDA is entirely unprecedented,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and director of Trust Women. “It’s highly unusual, and in this case, ill-advised. The FDA, through thorough examination, made sure the drug was safe to be issued to young women. It may be safer than aspirin, which we distribute in schools. This decision seems to have been a political one. As a Kansan and longtime supporter of Sebelius, I can’t help but be disappointed in her judgment.”