Friday, December 09, 2011

Political Calculation

The implications of the ruling by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to order the Food and Drug Administration to issue a letter denying Israel-based Teva Pharmaceuticals application to make Plan B One Step available over the counter may not be fully understood.

For males and for those females who never have had reason to inquire about Plan B, it may seem that the emergency contraceptive is fully available to the women 17 years of age and over who need and want it. After all, the President himself on Thursday said

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 go into a drugstore, should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication....

But Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Marie McCullough noted that in 2009, the age at which a female could obtain Plan B without a prescription was lowered from 18 to 17 but

the product remained behind the pharmacist's counter, which added obstacles if the pharmacy was closed - or the woman was embarrassed. The change that Sebelius rejected would have put Plan B on the shelf, like condoms and pregnancy tests, for females of all ages.

So the idea that the medication would be put on the shelves "alongside bubble gum or batteries" is unlikely, while the suggestion probably results from political considerations of a President dependably intimidated by the right. Now it remains behind the counter, unlike the more easily attainable diet pills and medication with side effects more severe than those of Plan B.

At the news conference, Obama contended "With respect to the Plan B, I did not get involved in the process. This was a decision that was made by Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of HHS." Sure, she made the final decision and Obama didn't get his hands dirty; that does not preclude one of his political advisers from making sure that Sebelius was aware of the stakes involved.

Susan Wood, who resigned in 2003 from the FDA as assistant commissioner for women’s health after the agency overruled its advisory committee on Plan B, now asks "Why would this administration and this president, which campaigned that it would respect science, even consider not allowing this drug’’ to be made more available. She adds “I was frankly stunned and very disappointed. It’s very reminiscent of when I left the FDA. . . . It’s happening again.’’

As is an election in less than a year.

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