Emergency contraception, also known as the morning after pill, can prevent unintended pregnancy if taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sexual intercourse. Plan B, one form of emergency contraception, has been available with a prescription in the United States since 1999. Yet many women cannot obtain a prescription and get it filled within the 72 hour window in which Plan B is most effective. To combat this problem, Barr Laboratories, the maker of Plan B, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for over-the-counter status for the pill three years ago. Despite the fact that the FDA’s own advisory panels unanimously found the drug to be both safe and effective in preventing unintended pregnancy, the application has encountered numerous unconventional delays.
In order to pressure the FDA into issuing a final decision, Senators Clinton and Murray have placed a hold on Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach’s nomination to head the FDA. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) has scheduled a hearing to consider his nomination for Tuesday, August 1. Von Eschenbach has been acting Commissioner of the agency since September 2005 when his predecessor, Lester Crawford, abruptly resigned.
Last year Senators Clinton and Murray also put a hold on Crawford’s nomination, but allowed it to go through when the FDA promised to issue a decision on Plan B. Instead of approving or rejecting the application, however, the FDA submitted the application to an unusual and unnecessary public comment process, effectively relegating it to an administrative black hole. This time, if their colleagues on the HELP committee honor their request, it is likely that the Senators will require the decision to be made before they release their hold on the nomination process.
Senators Clinton and Murray should be commended for their efforts to provide women with another tool to prevent unintended pregnancy and abortion and to enable women to become pregnant only when they feel that they are ready to be parents. Given the mounting evidence that politics has played an undue role in a variety of FDA decisions, it is all the more imperative that we use all available mechanisms to prevent politics from trumping science.
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