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.