Evidently, to President Obama, “common sense” and science aren’t the same thing.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled an FDA decision to make Plan B available over the counter for women of all ages. His excuse for supporting her? According to the AP: “Obama says as a father of two daughters, the government should ‘apply some common sense’ to rules when it comes to over-the-counter medication.”

It’s paternalism, literally. Emergency contraception is already available over the counter to women over 17; in response to a request from the drug’s manufacturer, the FDA researched safety and efficacy of OTC access for women under 17 and found that there is no reason not to lift the age limit. Studies found no adverse health effects with non-prescription use and that younger women were able to understand how to use the product, including, crucially, that it does not protect against sexually transmitted infections. So what’s the “common sense” in keeping the age limit in place?

Under the Bush administration, the FDA was a deeply politicized agency, which often ignored science at the expense of women’s health. Jessica Valenti rehashed the history here. Former FDA director of women’s health Dr. Susan Wood even resigned in protest over the FDA’s refusal to grant over-the-counter status to Plan B at all. It took a high-profile struggle and a lawsuit to get OTC approval with an age limit.

So now, under Obama, FDA makes the right decision, and Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary overrules the agency, with Obama’s support. This morning NPR’s Julie Rovner said it’s the first time anyone can remember the health secretary overruling the FDA. If this isn’t politics over science, what is?

What really smarts is Obama’s invocation of his daughters to justify his own bad logic. It’s emblematic of the limits of the “As a father of daughters” strain of support for women’s rights. As a father, Obama may hope that he has created a family environment in which his daughters would feel comfortable telling him or Michelle if they need to use EC. Good for him. But he’s not Dad-in-Chief to all teenage girls. You don’t want to think about your daughters making a decision about their sex lives without consulting you? Too bad, Mr. President: there are thousands of girls and women who need to be able to make that decision without involving their family or doctor. You’re not their father; you’re their president.

Despite the rhetoric, though, it was doubtless political fallout, not personal squeamishness, that drove this decision. Obama is already considering caving to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in broadening religious exemptions to the requirement that employers provide insurance coverage for birth control. I’ve written before that Obama has achieved a number of laudable successes for women, largely through the Affordable Care Act, but has failed over and over to put mettle behind any reproductive health issue. The strategy is baffling. Last night on NY1, the Catholic League and NARAL Pro-Choice New York agreed that the decision was nothing more than “political posturing.” In other words: religious conservatives aren’t falling for it! Which voters, exactly, is Obama trying to court?

Keep in mind that the prescription requirement impedes access for women over 17, too—they’re required to request the medication of a pharmacist or clerk, and have to show ID to prove they’re over 17. Misunderstanding the regulations about access, some pharmacies keep a list of women who buy EC. And don’t forget, time is of the essence: EC is most effective when taken within seventy-two hours of unprotected sex. Waiting around for a doctor’s appointment, trying to figure out who’ll see you at the university health center, figuring out how to tell your parents: it all makes an unwanted pregnancy more likely. How many fathers, or presidents, want that?

Related Posts You Should Read
Linda Hirshman at The Atlantic: “Obama’s Amazing Ability to Rile Up the Left While Gaining Nothing From the Right
Anna North at Jezebel: “Five Common Drugs More Dangerous Than Plan B
Marcy Wheeler: “‘As a Father of Two Daughters,’ I Want the Government to Ignore Science