Food and Drug Administration Bows to Anti-Choice Politics; ACLU Dismayed, Warns Political Move Risks Health of Women

May 7, 2004 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Reacting to the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to deny over-the-counter status for the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B, the American Civil Liberties Union warned of the dangers to the health of women. The approval of Plan B was supported by overwhelming scientific evidence and the near-unanimous recommendation of the FDA’s own independent advisory committee of medical experts.

“This decision makes clear the administration’s unabashed and unconscionable willingness to put anti-choice politics before science and the health of women,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Knowing that independent experts agree that emergency contraception is safe for use without a prescription, the anti-choice political agenda behind the FDA’s decision becomes clear.”

In December of 2003, a panel of FDA advisors voted 23-4 to allow Plan B to be made available without a prescription. This recommendation was supported by the staff of the FDA as well as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Public Health Association and other medical organizations.

In concluding that emergency contraceptives are safe and effective, the FDA advisory panel considered a study showing that easy access to such contraceptives does not cause adolescents to have more unprotected sex or to stop using contraception.

Emergency contraceptives must be taken within 72 to 120 hours after unprotected intercourse to prevent pregnancy, but most experts agree that it is more effective the sooner it is taken. This narrow window makes ready access to emergency contraceptives critical, and requiring a prescription places an unnecessary burden, the ACLU said.

The ACLU also said that the FDA’s decision is a particular blow to survivors of sexual assault. Numerous national studies show that the majority of rape victims do not receive emergency contraceptives in the emergency room. Ready availability of emergency contraceptives without a doctor’s prescription would mean that at least one injury from the assault — the possibility of pregnancy — could be quickly and safely alleviated.

Making emergency contraceptives available over-the-counter would allow women to take measures that would prevent unintended pregnancies from occurring. In 2000 alone, emergency contraceptives prevented approximately 51,000 abortions, the Alan Guttmacher Institute estimated. Emergency contraception prevents pregnancy, but does not terminate a pre-existing pregnancy.

“For women who cannot afford to see a doctor, whose doctor’s office is closed during the critical period, who cannot obtain an appointment within the short window, or whose pharmacist does not stock emergency contraceptives, the prescription requirement serves as major barrier to getting the drug within the necessary time frame,” Murphy said. “If this administration was seriously committed to reducing the need for abortions in this country, ensuring access to emergency contraceptives would be an appropriate measure.”

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