Putting politics above women’s well-being

Susan Wood’s decision to resign from the Food and Drug Administration was courageous and admirable.

by Abby Bar-Lev

When Susan Wood resigned from her position as assistant commissioner of the Women’s Health Office at the Food and Drug Administration on Aug. 31, she highlighted our government’s trend of putting politics above women’s well-being.

Wood’s resignation came in protest of the FDA’s refusal to allow over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive pill Plan B (aka the morning-after pill) that can prevent a pregnancy up to 72 hours after sexual intercourse. Although the FDA had promised to make a decision regarding nonprescription sales of Plan B by Sept. 1 (a promise at the heart of the Senate confirming Bush’s appointment of Lester Crawford as commissioner of the FDA), it instead issued yet another delay with no deadline. As Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., put it, “A delay is not a decision, and no amount of semantics can change that.”

Surely the FDA, an organization rooted in science, at least must have had the backing of scientific research when it indefinitely postponed its decision on whether to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B.

Contrarily, the scientific community has largely supported the nonprescription sales of Plan B. Even Crawford himself declared the pill safe. In fact, Commissioner Crawford issued the delay against the advice of the FDA’s own scientific advisory panel. According to Wood, Crawford’s decision stunned many FDA employees and rejected the “scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended by the professional staff” at the FDA.

If emergency contraception were found to be unsafe and pose a threat to women’s health, this debate would be nonexistent. If there were any dangerous uncertainties regarding Plan B, the FDA staff – and certainly the Scientific Advisory Panel – would not have been as shocked as they were with Crawford’s decision to further delay a decision on Plan B. If it were found by any credible source to be risky for nonprescription sale, Susan Woods would never have resigned from her position as assistant commissioner of the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health.

As it turns out, science has no place in government. As it turns out, women are still held hostage by right-wing ideologues and religious zealots.

Those who argue that emergency contraception is tantamount to abortion have no credible scientific grounding to stand on. Plan B is a double dose of birth control and does not cause an abortion. According to NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota, “once a fertilized egg is implanted, EC (emergency contraception) cannot cause an abortion or harm an existing fetus.” It is a preventive measure that a myriad of women must at some point rely on whether it is follows a rape, a condom breaking during sex, or unprotected sex for whatever reason. Since the pill is effective only for up to 72 hours following sex, many women have difficulty getting a prescription in time. Women who need emergency contraception are not murderers, and far from it. The activists and right-wing organizations lobbying against emergency contraception are often the same people fighting against birth control, condoms, and sex education. Apparently they just expect you to not have sex – ever. If these people honestly only have sex with pregnancy in mind, then more power to them. That is their decision and not mine. But when their desires impinge on the rights and privacy of other women and me, then I’m going to have a problem with it.

What is truly at stake in this debate over the nonprescription sales of Plan B is the freedom and privacy of every woman in America. The freedom to choose whether to have sex, the freedom to choose family planning, the freedom to maintain constitutionally protected rights, is wobbling on one shaky big toe. Think especially about the plight of the country’s poorest women. What are women who cannot afford both the doctor’s appointment to get a Plan B prescription and then the drug itself to do? The bottom line is that women can never be fully free when something as personal and private as decisions concerning one’s own reproductive organs is taken captive by government.

Susan Wood’s resignation was courageous and admirable. Under a government dominated by leaders adverse to scientific logic and common sense, women are being thrown in the backseat and told to keep quiet. When even the FDA cannot transcend party lines and presidential loyalties, there is something seriously wrong. Sens. Clinton and Murray have urged the Senate to hold hearings on the delay, outraged with the FDA’s refusal to act on the side of science and in women’s best interests. Holding hearings is the least that the government can do. Women deserve to have access to all forms of safe birth control. Too much is at stake for this nation’s women to allow partisan politics to trump scientific fact.

Abby Bar-Lev welcomes comments at [email protected].