Plan B and politics vs. common sense

Plenty of drugs are safe, but not sold over the counter.  Lipitor, for example, is safe, but not sold over the counter because follow-up care is recommended due to potential kidney problems.  Likewise, the birth control pill, also deemed a safe drug, is not sold over the counter because it is an extremely powerful hormone that could have negative health effects.  

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Plan B should be no different.  It is a double dose of the extremely powerful hormone found in the birth control pill and should receive more, not less, oversight than the pill.  In fact, because of the potential side effects, it is recommended that a woman seek follow-up care 2 to 3 weeks after taking the drug.  It is unclear how many women are actually seeking the recommended follow up care.

Plan B is intended to be used to prevent pregnancy, if a woman either forgets to use contraception or the contraception fails.  It is not intended to be used routinely.  In fact, manufacturers of the drug claim that it is less effective, if a woman uses it multiple times per month.  The long-term effects of taking the drug multiple times are unknown at this point.  It is not clear how many women are now using Plan B as a form of routine birth control rather than as an emergency contraception.

Unmonitored use of Plan B is risky, because of documented interactions with certain drugs used to treat diabetes, allergies, and seizures—not to mention certain antibiotics.  Furthermore, medical studies indicate that the rate of ectopic pregnancies may increase from 2% of all pregnancies to 10% of pregnancies begun while taking Plan B.

For Secretary Sebelius, an unapologetic abortion rights supporter, approving the FDA recommendation would have been the path of least resistance, especially since most observers expected it to go through anyway.

But the Secretary made a correct but hard decision.  Many women’s groups are upset—and their disappointment is understandable: making Plan B available over the counter would have made it much easier for women to avert an unplanned pregnancy in near-total privacy--without even talking to a doctor.  But this privacy would have been accompanied by potentially grave risks, and Secretary Sebelius put health and safety over politics.  The beneficiaries of her political courage are the young women and girls who could have potentially misused the drug and suffered serious long-term effects.

Women’s groups exist to look out for the best interests of women.  We pro-life Democrats differ strongly on whether abortion rights should be part of this, but firmly agree with their general goals of eliminating gender discrimination and empowering women educationally, professionally, and interpersonally.  Our pro-life convictions apply not simply from conception to the cradle, but from the cradle to the grave.  In this case, our desire to put women on an equal footing with men and to defend their privacy rights was trumped by the imperative of defending the lives of young women and girls (and any unborn children conceived before the pill was taken).  

Those of us in national politics suffer from a tendency to become so fixated on hard-fought lines in the sand that we lose sight of our overall priorities. We end up fighting so hard against compromising our short-term goals that we end up making compromises on our long-term goals.  We fail to clearly see what is really at stake.  And the rough and tumble of partisan politics all too often trumps good decision making.  Fortunately, in this case, Secretary Sebelius and President Obama elevated common sense over narrow partisanship. 

Dahlkemper is a former Democrat Congresswoman from Pennsylvania.