Middle path not taken

May 10, 2004

TOO MUCH TO hope, it seems, that the Bush administration could have accepted a midway position in the unfortunate political battle over preventing unwanted pregnancies.

The White House refused last week to allow over-the-counter sales of a "morning after" drug that works like birth control pills to block conception before it happens -- despite what should be the drug's obvious appeal to anyone seeking to limit abortions.

The excuse offered by the Food and Drug Administration was that the manufacturer of the Plan B pills had failed to prove that young girls could use the medication safely without a doctor's supervision because not many girls 16 or younger were included in the clinical trials.

Pretty flimsy.

More likely, President Bush finds himself in such dread fear of losing his conservative base in a close re-election battle that he doesn't want to take the chance of offending anti-abortion types so hard-core they consider even birth control pills too much of an interference with nature.

It seems a potentially cruel overreaction.

After all, the president had the political cover of an FDA advisory panel that voted overwhelmingly last year to recommend that Plan B be offered for sale without a prescription. Not only was the drug determined to be safe, but its effective use requires quick action. If getting a prescription from a doctor takes a day or two, that could be too long to prevent a pregnancy.

Thus, without the drug, the young women Mr. Bush is claiming to protect are even more at risk.

It is now a matter of well-established Bush administration precedent that politics not only trumps science but shapes science in all policy arenas where both come into play.

But the president is skillful enough to have made the case that emergency contraception is such a powerful tool for preventing abortion that he couldn't bring himself to stand in the way. He might even have unearthed the phrase "compassionate conservative," cast aside after he took office.

But Plan B seems certain to reach the over-the-counter market before long, in any case. The manufacturer isn't about to give up, and drug companies have a lot of sway with the administration, too.

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