Last Monday, the United States Department of Health and Human Services publicly overruled the Food and Drug Administration for the first time in history. The FDA found Plan B One-Step to be suitable for women of all ages to purchase over the counter. Currently a woman must be 17 or older to buy the pill without a prescription. HHS disagreed with the FDA’s ruling and is refusing to allow women under age 17 to purchase the emergency contraceptive without a prescription. Though HHS can legally overrule the FDA, HHS overstepped its bounds in doing so, and it should respect the FDA’s decision.
Plan B is an oral contraceptive that can be taken after sex. According to the FDA, the contraceptive is capable of reducing the risk of unplanned pregnancy by more than 50 percent. Plan B purchasing procedures have been debated for years. In 2006, there was a push to make the contraceptive only available with a prescription. The Bush administration eventually compromised and allowed 18 year olds to purchase the drug over the counter. The law was eventually amended to include 17 year olds in 2009.
According to a report by FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg, the FDA “determined that the product was safe and effective in adolescent females.” If the FDA found that Plan B is safe for young women, HHS should support that finding. The FDA’s purpose is to research pharmaceuticals and protect citizens from drugs it deems unsafe. Because it’s the FDA’s job to investigate drugs, HHS should trust the FDA when it says Plan B is safe for all women.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overturned the FDA’s ruling due to the possible side effects if a young woman were to take Plan B improperly. However, there are many other over-the-counter drugs with long lists of possible side effects that are sold without any debate. Consumers should be aware of the possible side effects of a drug before taking it, and the pharmaceutical companies need to make sure this information is readily available. But Plan B should not be prevented from being sold over the counter solely because of possible side effects, especially when many other drugs with adverse side effects are already available for purchase.
The FDA has established a strong societal trust. Since its formation in 1906, the FDA has objectively performed countless scientific studies to determine the safety of medicine. The HHS should continue its legacy of supporting the FDA and not allow any politics regarding contraception to refute scientific data.
While HHS may not support sexual relationships for 17-year-old women, it cannot ban them from doing so or ban medicine that helps to prevent unexpected pregnancies when contraceptives aren’t used or don’t work properly. HHS needs to understand the importance of accessible contraceptives, and the FDA’s ruling should stand so all young women can purchase Plan B without a prescription.