I was proud of President Obama when he signed the Lily Ledbetter Act, a legal step towards pay equity for women. I was proud when he placed a personal phone call to Janice Lengbehn, who was denied access to her dying partner in a Florida hospital, to tell her he was sorry and that he had ordered a new rule to prevent something like that from happening to other families. But this Administration just doesn’t seem to get that our ability to decide when and whether to have a child is as critical to autonomy and health as equal pay and legal recognition of our families.
You recall Plan B – also known as the “morning after pill.” Some of you have probably used it. Some of you may have heard that it really causes abortions and that it’s not safe. But those are myths. In fact, Plan B can’t harm an existing pregnancy, and is a safe way to prevent pregnancy if used within 120 hours after sex (or a sexual assault) Emergency contraception, under a different brand name, is available over the counter to women of all ages in many countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe– even in Ireland, a country with restrictive abortion laws.
But the drug is so controversial in the United States, that it is treated differently than any other drug in the nation. It must be kept behind the counter, and a pharmacist must confirm the purchaser’s age, before selling it – even though it is technically an “over-the-counter” drug for women age 17 and over. Today, the federal Food and Drug Administration (the FDA) was prepared to make the drug an over-the-counter product just like many other safe medications. Women across the country were holding their breath, waiting for yet another legal barrier to reproductive health to be lifted. Then, this morning, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius sent a letter to the FDA blocking its decision, claiming that it had not done enough research on whether really young girls can safely use the drug.
What does that mean for girls? It means that girls under 17 still need a prescription to get Plan B. We are lucky in Washington, because many pharmacists in our state are authorized by law to prescribe Plan B right there in the pharmacy. Not so for girls in many other states, including Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. And what does it mean for women? It means that a pharmacist is still the gatekeeper of your medication, and may refuse to dispense it, requiring you to try to find it somewhere else while the clock is ticking.
Today’s action is an incredible disappointment for those who expected the current Administration to uphold its promise to make regulatory decisions grounded in science. And it is unacceptable to trade women’s health and reproductive autonomy for perceived political gain. I’m hoping this is the last time, and that we don’t see the President betray us again by giving religiously-affiliated employers the right to opt out of a new rule requiring all employers to include contraception in their employees’ insurance plans. But I suggest we don’t sit back and expect this Administration to hold the line for us.