As I think we all know, I am a huge fan of ready access to contraceptives for everyone, no matter why they’re using them. And no matter what your age might be -- if you’re 90 and you need a condom to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections or you’re 13 and you need the pill, I want you to be able to access those things easily and without shame. I’m also very supportive of comprehensive sexual education for all, and equal access to abortion services.
Basically, I think that people should be able to make empowered decisions about their sexual health. Or any aspects of their personal health, for that matter. And I think that the conservative camp in the United States has done a fantastic job of turning sexual health into a political issue, rather than a private one. I can walk into the pharmacy and pick up some aspirin for a headache, but if I want to buy some condoms, I have to shuffle up to the counter and ask them to unlock the case.
And if I want access to emergency contraception, I have to provide personal information; despite being available to me without a prescription because I’m over 17, the pharmacist has to confirm that I’m over 17. And may be perfectly happy to shame me along the way, as many people who have been in this situation have amply documented.
Which is why I was pretty durn excited yesterday when it looked like the FDA was about to make a recommendation to lift the restrictions on access to emergency contraception, making it available over the counter for everyone, of all ages, without a prescription. The FDA’s job is to review medical evidence and determine if something is safe; the FDA thought this was a safe move, and it said so.
At which point Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA, insisting that the restrictions should be left in place. She had a cute excuse:
In her own statement, Ms. Sebelius said, “After careful consideration of the F.D.A. summary review, I have concluded that the data submitted by Teva do not conclusively establish that Plan B One-Step should be made available over the counter for all girls of reproductive age.” She was referring to Teva Pharmaceuticals, the pill’s maker. She noted that 10 percent of 11-year-old girls can bear children, so they needed to be studied as well.
In other words, she’s just protecting your interests! No way this is political, AT ALL. Absolutely not. That’s why she because the first HHS Secretary in US history to publicly overrule the FDA on a decision.
This issue of course also highlighted the controversy over “parental rights,” an issue that has come up in a number of states with abortion notification laws on the books, or attempts to pass such laws. Limited access to reproductive health services endangers minors in addition to violating their privacy, particularly with a time sensitive issue like emergency contraception. Emergency as in you need it now and don’t have time to tell your parents you’re having sex (or were raped), might not be able to locate your parents, might have parents who are opposed to the use of contraception...
I favor OTC access to all contraceptive options, but OTC access to emergency contraception is particularly important because the clock’s a’ tickin’; time is of the essence and you don’t have time to seek out a prescription and hit the pharmacy.
Likewise, I oppose “conscience clauses” allowing pharmacists and pharmacy personnel to pick and choose which medications they dispense. If you don’t want to dispense medication, don’t work for a pharmacy. If you don’t want to provide medical services, don’t become a health care professional. Bam. We're done.
This decision is being blamed on the Obama Administration; Sebelius is of course an Obama appointee, and for a decision this politically explosive, it’s fairly obvious that high ranking people were involved in the process. People who need access to contraception are outraged, adding this to the list of reasons they’re angry at the President, as yet another example of a situation where the needs of the people were thrown to the wolves for political expediency.
A personal medical matter has been turned into a political football, and troublingly, a matter of fact and science has been turned into an emotional flashpoint. The practice of medicine should be about the practice of fact; not about what is politically convenient, not about appeasing people in positions of power vis a vis reelection attempts, but about using evidence-based fact to make decisions about which medical services should be provided. And the factual evidence in this case clearly indicated that there was no medical reason to restrict access to emergency contraception for people under 17 years of age.
Yesterday’s stunning news wasn’t just horrible news for young folks who need access to EC. It was also horrible news for science. And, as Sarah Jaffe points out, it was a reminder that having Democrats and women in power doesn't equal social progressivism.