On Friday, Federal Judge Edward R. Korman ruled that the government must make the most common form of the morning-after pill, Plan B One-Step, available over-the-counter to women of all ages. This decision strikes down the current restriction that women 16 and under may only access the morning-after pill with a prescription. The Food and Drug Administration has 30 days to comply with orders to make the pill universally available. Here are four takeaways from the latest, politically fraught fight over contraception:
1. The government has blocked widespread access for more than a decade
It's been twelve years since women's health advocates first filed a petition to ease access to the morning-after pill, and eight years since the lawsuit began. The FDA approved the pill in 1999, but only with a prescription. In 2001, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a Citizen Petition with the FDA to make Plan B available OTC. After multiple studies showed Plan B's safety and effectiveness, an FDA panel of experts recommended that the pill be approved for OTC, but the FDA refused to do so. In 2005, writes Jodi Jacobsen at RH Reality Check, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit against the FDA for "ignoring science and holding Plan B to a different standard than other drugs." And in 2011, when the FDA finally wanted to remove age restrictions on OTC access, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the agency. In his decision, Judge Korman wrote that the government was being "arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable."
2. Scientists wanted this ruling
Pretty much every legitimate science and medical organization in the country has already come out in favor of making the morning-after pill OTC for women of reproductive age. The American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have "endorsed unrestricted access to emergency contraception," says James Hamblin at TheAtlantic.com. And with good reason. Making women wait for a prescription effectively makes the morning-after pill less effective. It has to be taken before implantation of a fertilized egg, so within 72 hours to actually work. "Its odds of working are directly proportional to how soon it is taken," Hamblin explains. "Time spent waiting for a prescription is meaningful."
3. Obama has been a major obstacle
President Obama, who assailed the GOP during the campaign for its so-called "war on women," is actually responsible for the delay. Sebelius' move to block the FDA came at the start of Obama's re-election cycle, when he tried to swing (a little) to the social right by fighting universal OTC access to Plan B. He agreed with Sebelius that "a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old going to a drug store" should not be able "buy a medication that potentially if not used properly could end up having an adverse effect." Korman called out Obama and Sebelius for playing politics in his decision, writing that Sebelius' move was "politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent."
4. The decision comes from a Republican appointee
Ironically, Judge Korman himself is a Republican appointee, having been nominated by Ronald Reagan. "Conventional politics flew out the window," writes Richard Wolf at USA Today. "Usually, when a conservative court takes President Obama to task, you an bet it's for being too liberal." Korman held back no criticism of Obama and Sebelius, accusing the latter's justification for blocking the FDA as "so unpersuasive as to call into her question her good faith." Today, writes Wolf, "politics as usual was anything but."