Poor planning

March 31, 2006

The Maryland Senate voted this week to keep a safe and effective form of birth control out of the hands of the people who need it. By killing a bill that would have allowed the morning-after pill to be dispensed without a prescription, these senators have done a tremendous disservice to women. What the contraceptive known as "Plan B" offers is a second chance for its users - the victims of rape and incest included - to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

What makes the decision particularly galling are the lame excuses offered by the senators who voted against the measure. Some complained about a lack of parental supervision. Others fretted about the drug's safety. In reality, neither is a compelling argument, especially when stacked against the potential good the drug can do.

The reason the issue was even before the Maryland General Assembly was the federal Food and Drug Administration's failure to follow its experts' recommendations and allow the morning-after pill to be sold over the counter. States have been forced to intervene. The pills are considered safe - they are nontoxic and nonaddictive, and there's no danger of overdose (the same hormone is used in standard birth-control pills). But the medication must be used within 72 hours to be effective. Even under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to obtain a prescription so quickly.

What the vote in the Senate really smacks of is political cowardice. Some lawmakers fear angering religious fundamentalists in an election year. But Plan B doesn't terminate pregnancies; it prevents them.

It's one thing for religious institutions to oppose contraceptives as a tenet of faith or perhaps because they believe contraceptives will cause young women to be sexually active (as if banning contraceptives would put an end to teen sex). But it's quite another to impose those beliefs on everyone. Legislators have an obligation to make decisions based on sound public health policy. At least eight other states are allowing the morning-after pill to be sold without a prescription - as have many other countries. France approved it in 1999 and currently has half the U.S. abortion rate.

With such a basic right as access to contraception at stake, Maryland should look for an emergency remedy: voting for more-enlightened Senate candidates this fall.

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