Plan B

Regardless of motivation, Obama did the right thing in dropping age restrictions

The Obama administration’s handling of the so-called “morning-after pill” has been perplexing and shameful. Playing politics with the welfare of young women is wrong. All the more so in that it has never been clear what the president and his advisers thought they stood to gain out of all this.

On Monday, the administration dropped its effort to impose age restrictions on the sale of emergency contraceptive pills such as Plan B One-Step. It was the right call, but for questionable reasons and only after a tortuous path.

Plan B was first approved in 1999 as a prescription drug. The FDA approved it as an over-the-counter drug for women 18 and older in 2006; anyone younger still needed a prescription.

In 2011, the FDA approved Plan B as an over-the-counter drug for girls and women of all ages. (For obvious reasons, discussions of emergency contraceptives presume a female purchaser, but yes, boys and men can buy it, too.)

However, Kathleen Sibelius, the Obama administration’s secretary of health and human services, overruled that decision and kept the age limits in place. The age for nonprescription purchases was later dropped to 15, but still required buyers to show government-issued identification, which a growing number of teens lack.

Then, on April 5, Judge Edward R. Korman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York ruled that the FDA must approve the drug for nonprescription use by all ages. When an appeals court last week refused the administration’s request to fully stay Korman’s order until a final ruling was handed down, the Justice Department took that as a signal that it would not prevail, and the administration caved.

Plan B will be available over the counter to buyers of all ages, which is the right outcome. But the thinking of the Obama administration remains inexplicable.

As The Washington Post reported, in his April ruling, Judge Korman said the age limits were “politically motivated” and “scientifically unjustified.” But if politics was paramount, it is unclear what the point might have been.

Emergency contraception is not abortion and Plan B is not the same as RU486, the abortion pill. But nothing about reproductive rights pleases anti-abortion extremists, and an age limit for Plan B was not about to mollify them.

Nor did trying to maintain it. The president of Americans United for Life said Monday’s decision was surrendering “women’s health to the politics of big abortion.”

At the same time, with his support for the age limits, Obama angered women’s rights and pro-choice groups – which should be his natural constituents. Worse, he did so by effectively endorsing hackneyed arguments about parental rights and encouraging risky behavior.

At one point, Obama said that, as a parent, he was uncomfortable with the idea that emergency contraception would be available to his daughters. Why? So he could overrule their choice not to become pregnant?

He probably need not worry. But most families lack Secret Service protection and most daughters can get pregnant without asking anyone’s permission. Few people of any age make decisions about sex based on FDA rules. Young people in particular do not look to parents or presidents for encouragement or approval.

Why its opponents fought the approval of Plan B is straightforward. They not only oppose abortion, they oppose contraception and, at heart, women’s autonomy. The only parental right they fear losing is the ability to control their daughters’ pregnanies.

What Obama was thinking, however, is a mystery. He had nothing to gain, politically or morally, in opposing the ready availability of Plan B. He was right all around to let it go.