The drawn-out and highly political fight over access to emergency contraception took another turn earlier this month, when a federal court shot down the Obama administration’s ban on over-the-counter sales of the drug to teenagers, calling it a “bad faith” policy made for political reasons.
Emergency contraception, or EC—a high dose of the hormones found in regular birth control pills—can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex, but only if taken within a brief window of time, about 72 hours. That’s why advocates have long pushed for the drug to be available over the counter, rather than for women to be required to go through the time-consuming process of obtaining a doctor’s prescription.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—first under the George W. Bush administration, then again under the Obama administration—has rejected applications to allow the drug’s over-the-counter sale, expressing concerns about its potential effects on teenage girls.
Not incidentally, conservative groups have pressured the government to keep the restriction in place; the Family Research Council has said that allowing teenage girls to independently access emergency contraception “jeopardizes [their] health and the ability of parents to care for their daughters’ physical and emotional well-being” and amounts to “promoting sexual license for teens.”
The American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics all endorse the over-the-counter sale of EC.
In 2006, the FDA relented somewhat, allowing OTC sales to women aged 18 and over. But because of the age restriction, pharmacies have continued to hold EC behind the counter, forcing women of all ages to ask pharmacy staff for it. That, critics say, creates an unwarranted barrier for women who might feel too embarrassed or intimidated to request it.
In 2011, the FDA changed its position, recommending that EC be available without a prescription to women and girls of all ages. But U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA recommendation—an unprecedented step that some saw as an effort by the Obama administration to appease conservative voters heading into the 2012 election.
This month’s court ruling comes in a case filed against the FDA in 2005 by the Center for Reproductive Rights challenging the restrictions on EC. Judge Edward Korman, a federal district judge in New York, overturned the ban on OTC sales to women under 18, ordering the FDA to make the drug available for OTC sale within 30 days. Korman called the FDA ban “a strong showing of bad faith and improper political influence.” Nancy Northup, CRR’s president, called the ruling a “huge victory for women’s health,” adding that her group “has aggressively pushed the U.S. government to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific and medical evidence proving the safety of emergency contraception for women of all ages. Yet time and time again, politics trumped what was best for women’s health.”
At deadline, the FDA had not commented on the ruling, although a White House spokesman has said that Obama stands behind Sebelius’ 2011 decision.•