December 9, 2011 — President Obama on Thursday said that while he was not involved in the process, he fully supports HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' decision to block the removal of age restrictions for nonprescription sales of the emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step, the New York Times reports (Calmes/Harris, New York Times, 12/8). The drug can prevent pregnancy and is most effective if taken within 72 hours after sex.
On Wednesday, FDA was set to eliminate the current requirement that women prove they are at least 17 years old or obtain a prescription to purchase the drug, but Sebelius issued a memo stating that she was invoking her authority to overrule the decision because the drugmaker did not provide "data on all ages for which the drug would be approved" for nonprescription use. Sebelius cited the "significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age" as a reason for maintaining the current age restrictions (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/8).
Obama during a press conference on Thursday said that "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." He added, "And as I understand it, the reason [Sebelius] made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drug store 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. And I think most parents would probably feel the same way" (New York Times, 12/8).
Questions About Motivations for Decision
Women's groups criticized the president's remarks. "It's not good enough to say what you want for your own two daughters," Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, said, adding, "The issue here is science and medicine" (Stein/Kornblut, Washington Post, 12/8).
Cynthia Pearson of the National Women's Health Network said, "When President Obama took office, he pledged the administration's commitment to scientific integrity. This decision is a betrayal of that promise," (Feller/Neergaard, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 12/8).
Ted Miller, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, "We're less than a year out from the election, and at this point we really want to be talking to voters, in particular, a core segment of women voters, about the president's strong record on women's health and freedom," but the decision "makes it much more difficult" (New York Times, 12/8).
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats were "far more cautious with their criticism," and many did not respond to requests for statements on the matter, according to the Huffington Post.
However, representatives of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) -- who issued a statement condemning the decision -- confirmed that she would be taking the lead on writing a letter asking the White House for more information on the decision (Bassett et al., Huffington Post, 12/9).
According to the Times, some Democrats have speculated that the White House wanted to avoid a divisive debate in order to "preserve maneuvering room as it confronts a separate challenge" from the Catholic Church, (New York Times, 12/8). The church is pressuring the administration to create an even broader religious exemption to a new rule that will require health plans to cover contraceptive services without cost-sharing by policyholders. Women's groups would like the exemption eliminated (Women's Health Policy Report, 11/28).
One unnamed congressional Democrat said, "There are a number of choice issues on their plate right now, and they're trying to not lose the forest for the trees. In the macro picture of choice issues, you know, there are greater attacks being waged right now that will have an incredibly profound impact on women if we don't address them properly" (Huffington Post, 12/9).
Judy Waxman, vice president of health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center, said the group "got a call from HHS clarifying that one decision has nothing to do with the other."
She said the White House is still having high-level meetings to discuss the issue, adding, "Around Thanksgiving we kept hearing it would be an imminent decision, but now it doesn't seem imminent" (McCarthy, National Journal, 12/8).