Women's health advocates have begun a drive to make emergency contraception universally available over the counter, pressing the Obama administration to reverse a 2011 decision on the subject and courting a renewed fight with social conservatives on the issue.
"It was very clear at the time that it wasn't the science, it was the politics that troubled them," says Kirsten Moore, president and CEO of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, which has sponsored a petition on the issue. "But coming out of this election, the calculus around the politics has changed."
The group hopes to get 10,000 signatures by Dec. 7, the one-year anniversary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius's original decision, which required prescriptions for the pills despite an FDA recommendation to the contrary. Moore says she has no inside information on whether Obama's reelection might give Sebelius room to reconsider, but she's hopeful, noting that defending birth control and reproductive rights appeared to be a major priority for female voters on Election Day. Republican comments on rape and contraception turned into political disasters for the party earlier this month, costing Republicans at least two Senate seats.
Last December, Sebelius ruled that emergency contraception would remain prescription-only for anyone under 17. In so doing, she overruled the FDA's recommendation that it be available over the counter. The move was widely criticized as political, an effort by the Obama administration to avoid a fight with conservatives. But now that Obama doesn't have to worry about reelection anymore, supporters of over-the-counter EC (the best-known form of which is Plan B, above) are pushing Sebelius to reconsider.
A spokesperson for the Dept. of Health and Human Services said the agency could not comment on the issue at this time.
The EC petition comes on the heels of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' recommendation that normal, non-emergency birth control pills be sold over the counter. Moore says the two issues are related, and she's concerned that "the push to get an oral contraceptive available without a prescription might remain in limbo if we can't just get this EC thing done and wrapped up." On the flip side, a removal of the final age restriction for emergency contraception might provide a sort of road map for a step-by-step transition to over-the-counter for normal contraceptives as well.
The RHTP aren't the only ones calling for increased access to emergency contraception — on Monday, the American Academy of Pediatricians released a statement [PDF] advising pediatricians to prescribe it to their teenage patients in advance, so they'd have it if they ever needed it. The statement adds, "pediatricians should advocate for increased non-prescription access to emergency contraception for teenagers regardless of age."
Those who support leaving the current age restriction in place argue that emergency contraception can cause an abortion by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting (studies conducted this summer found no evidence that the drug had this effect, but Plan B's website still lists it as a possibility). Some say young teenagers need counseling before taking the drug — Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, says, "At that age you need parents, you need physicians looking out for your best interests."
However, she thinks the restriction probably will be removed: "Before the election, Sebelius considered this a bridge too far, but now, magically after the election, the sky is opening up."