Late Monday evening, the Justice Department announced that it would withdraw its appeal of a ruling by federal Judge Edward Korman of the Eastern District of New York mandating universal, over-the-counter access to the morning-after pill. The drug will be made available to girls of any age.
The drug at the center of this controversy is levonorgestrel, commonly known as “Plan B,” which, according to the FDA-approved label, may work by preventing ovulation or fertilization or by inhibiting implantation. When Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had the opportunity in 2011 to extend over-the-counter access for Plan B to girls less than 17 years of age, she declined to do so, citing her serious concerns over label comprehension by teens. In order for a drug to be available over the counter, patients must be able to safely medicate themselves without medical supervision. President Obama, as the father of two young girls, echoed Mrs. Sebelius’ concerns and praised her decision.
The administration’s decision to drop its appeal of the judge’s mandate demonstrates that it’s willing to put aside common-sense safety concerns in the face of political pressure.
The decision is surprising in light of the fact that Mrs. Sebelius endured a scathing and factually baseless dressing-down by Judge Korman in his April decision. Judge Korman overturned Mrs. Sebelius’ original ruling to restrict sales of Plan B to those over 17 years of age. In its decision, the court accused the secretary of being politically motivated, yet offered no hard evidence to support that claim. The administration’s appeal, in some sense, could be regarded as a refusal to concede to such accusations. However, amid the pressure from the judiciary and the demand for increased access by “reproductive rights” groups, Mrs. Sebelius has relinquished the opportunity to defend herself, and in doing so, has put the safety of young girls in jeopardy.
While advocates of over-the-counter access for young girls applaud this ruling as a victory for women’s access to contraceptives, they ignore the fact that this decision is focused on providing a high-dose contraceptive to children, not women. In their haste to demand access, they fail to consider the potentially adverse repercussions this decision could have on young girls and on parental rights.
The effect that this high-dose contraceptive has on young girls is unknown. Over-the-counter sales may encourage repeat use and lead to increased sexual activity among teens. Additionally, girls most at risk for sexually transmitted infections and sexual abuse can now bypass essential medical screenings and parental supervision.
After Judge Korman’s ruling and the government’s capitulation, there is now no state in which Plan B cannot be sold to a girl who is below the age of consent. That is, since there is no age floor for the sale of Plan B, girls meant to be protected by age-of-consent provisions will be able to purchase the drug. Thus, a sexually active girl, who is below the age of consent and having sex with an adult male, can buy Plan B off the shelf.
It should be clear that Judge Korman’s decision to eliminate parents and doctors from discussions involving a child’s sexual behavior and the administration of a serious drug is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. Young girls must have a parent’s permission to receive an aspirin at school or to have their ears pierced at the mall, and for good reason. Medical research and common sense tell us that the adolescent brain has not yet reached full maturity, and, thus, requires guidance in decision-making. Such guidance is best provided by parents who know their child better than anyone else. Allowing Plan B to be sold over the counter to girls of all ages represents a foolhardy concession to a modern conception of sexual autonomy that jeopardizes their well-being in numerous ways. Congress needs to review Food and Drug Administration policy on over-the-counter drug approval and introduce legislation to protect parental rights on this matter.
Anna Higgins is director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council.