Plan B and a Surge - in the U.S.
In Washington this week, former Bush Surgeon General Richard Carmona described what happens when radical conservative politics and ideology replace science at the basis for public health policy. But one story this week - the booming over-the-counter sales of the Plan B emergency contraceptive - shows the benefits to Americans' health when those right-wing barriers are removed.
On Friday, the Washington Post reported that sales of Plan B are forecast to double to $80 million in 2007. That increase was fueled by a three-year fight by family planning advocates, women's health groups and their Democratic allies to overcome the obstructionism and junk science of the Bush administration. Despite an overwhelming consensus regarding the safety of Plan B among FDA career scientists, the political leadership at FDA and the Bush Department of Health and Human Services had kowtowed to the religious right and blocked over-the counter sales. (For more background, see "Plan B's Tangled Web.")
Only last year, did Plan B marker Barr Pharmaceutical reach a compromise with FDA enabling non-prescription sales to women 18 and older. (As I wrote last August, it was the only the sudden resignation of now-convicted former FDA chief Dr. Lester Crawford that made continued obstructionism by HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt and President Bush untenable.) But despite no evidence that Plan B poses any risk whatsoever to girls under age 18, FDA tossed a bone to the radical right and withheld its blessing for sales to teenagers. (For more on the administration's Plan B reversal during the confirmation hearings for Crawford's successor Andrew von Eschenbach, see "Bush's Plan B Flip-Flop.")
The reaction to the initial success of Plan B has been predictable. Susan Wood, an assistant commissioner for women's health and director of the Office of Women's Health at the FDA, declared:
"This is exactly what we hoped would happen. What we're seeing is women who needed this product now finally having access to it. For a woman in that position, it can make a real difference in her life."
Meanwhile, pro-life groups continue to protest, holding on to their talking point thoroughly discredited by the scientific community. Charmaine Yoest of the Family Research Council, one of several conservative groups suing the FDA to reverse its decision on Plan B, feigned worry for American women:
"This is very concerning. We think this is putting women's health at risk."
Despite this small step forward for the scientific method and the health, safety and privacy of America's women, a long road still awaits. Ted Miller of NARAL Pro-Choice America noted, "Even though it's now available without a prescription, there are still significant obstacles that customers are facing around the country." Case in point is 24 year-old Tashina Byrd, who was turned away by a pharmacist in Springfield, Ohio when she tried to buy Plan B in January. "He just laughed and told the attendant to tell me no one would give it to me," Byrd said. "I was enraged and humiliated."
Still, in George W. Bush's America, the news for America's women constitutes progress. The United States may have no Plan B in Iraq. But thanks to the efforts of health activists and Democratic Senators Patty Murray and Hillary Clinton, there is one here at home.