In a rare scenario in Washington, common sense trumped politics this week as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) prevented the controversial Plan B drug from being sold to girls younger than 17 without a prescription.
On Wednesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled a recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration to allow the over-the-counter sale of Plan B, enabling young girls to buy the drug without first consulting a doctor or parent. Agreeing with Secretary Sebelius’s decision, President Obama remarked yesterday:
I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine.…The reason Kathleen [Sebelius] made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going into a drug store should be able, alongside bubble gum or batteries, be able to buy a medication that potentially if not used properly could end up having an adverse effect.
Plan B is hardly as innocuous as a stick of gum. Touted as an “emergency contraceptive,” Plan B contains a large dose of a common contraceptive drug with potentially serious side effects. It is advertised to prevent pregnancy for up to 72 hours after unprotected sex by preventing ovulation, but in some instances, as the manufacturer’s website admits, Plan B can potentially prevent implantation of an already-conceived embryo—effectively causing a very early abortion.
Parents have a clear interest in the medical decisions of their minor children, especially when those decisions are of the magnitude of a potential abortion. Had HHS approved Plan B for over-the-counter sale, the government would have facilitated an avenue for side-stepping a parent’s role in their children’s well-being. In a world where most students need a parent’s approval to play contact sports, allowing parents the chance to discuss vastly important medical decisions with minors seems obvious and is a stance that a majority of Americans agree with when it comes to teen sexuality.
Unfortunately, concern for parental consent was apparently not among the considerations in Secretary Sebelius’s decision. In a statement released Wednesday, she cited concerns about “label comprehension” by girls younger than 17 and a lack of data on teens’ use of the drug, but failed to mention consideration of parental involvement in young teens’ medical decisions. While the final decision is laudable, the secretary’s statement seems to leave the door open to a future where Plan B—with ostensibly better labeling—is available to girls regardless of age.
Despite outcry from liberals, Wednesday’s decision does not change the availability of Plan B for women over 17 but simply keeps the controversial drug off shelves and hopefully out of the hands of young teens who haven’t consulted with a parent and doctor.
Sebelius’s announcement was a welcome change from some other recent decisions by the Department of Health and Human Services. Just last week, the House Oversight Committee investigated claims that political appointees at HHS refused to renew a grant contract for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ effective work with human trafficking victims solely because the group does not refer victims for abortion. Earlier this year, HHS released a mandate that could effectively force religious employers to provide insurance coverage of contraceptives and sterilization, including controversial drugs like Plan B, regardless of an organization’s moral objections to such services.
The common sense displayed in the decision to keep Plan B behind pharmacy counters should be prescribed as well to the Department of Health and Human Services’ many other deliberations that have profound public policy consequences.