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Duly Noted

Wednesday, Dec 7, 2011, 12:26 pm

Obama Overrules FDA on Plan B

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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The president is ritually pissing off his base for no good reason. It must be an election year.

Obama is taking a page from the George W. Bush playbook by overriding the Food and Drug Administration's recommendation to make the contraceptive Plan B available over the counter. The drug is currently available to women of all ages by prescription and over the counter to those who can prove they are at least 17.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius concedes that Plan B has been shown to be safe and effective when used as directed. She claims she is overruling the FDA because the company that asked to sell it over the counter didn't produce evidence that girls under 17 "can understand the label and use the product appropriately."

By that logic all over the counter medication should be banned because people under 17 might buy it.

Plan B is not difficult to use. Plan B One-Step is a single dose in a single tablet.

It is effective for 72 hours after unprotected sex. If it is taken too late, it won't work. That's it.

Besides which, a kid who can't figure out how to take 1 pill in 3 days is really not ready to be a parent.

The FDA lets kids buy Tylenol over the counter, despite the fact that surprisingly small overdoses can kill. The instructions on cold medicine and allergy pills are more complicated than the instructions on Plan B. The FDA trusts young women to treat their own yeast infections with OTC fungicide, a process that requires much greater reading comprehension, dexterity, and tenacity than taking a single pill.

Lurking in the background is the media-enabled myth that Plan B is an abortifacient. Most news reports say that it works "primarily" by preventing ovulation. That's incorrect. Plan B works exclusively by preventing ovulation. Plan B is high-dose birth control pills. If you take the pill every day, the hormones will thin the lining of the uterus, which theoretically could make it less likely for a fertilized egg to implant, if there happened to be one around. But if you take a large dose all at once, those uterine changes don't happen. Scientists have checked. 

The Obama administration is casting about for reasons to override the FDA on Plan B. Sebelius's rationalization is an insult to the intelligence of all Americans, not just to teenagers.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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