The morning after

August 28, 2006

Splitting the difference on either a moral or a scientific dispute may seem offensive to purists. But President Bush's ability to compromise, most recently demonstrated by federal approval of over-the-counter sales of emergency contraceptives, is worth applauding.

For three years, political appointees at the Food and Drug Administration have resisted recommendations from staff scientists to make the so-called "morning after" pill Plan B available without a prescription. Senators have in turn registered their outrage by using the issue as a club against nominees to head the agency.

But the impasse was recently broken with a halfway approach that will allow women 18 and older to buy the emergency contraceptive over the counter but will continue to require a prescription for younger teens.

Nitpickers might say that if you subscribe to the notion that medicine designed to interfere with a potential pregnancy is abortion, the age of the woman makes no difference. Some among Mr. Bush's religious conservative supporters are saying exactly that.

The science of Plan B is that it prevents rather than destroys conception. Research indicating access to the drug neither increases sexual activity nor leads to health-threatening overuse applies regardless of age.

Intellectual consistency has little place in the politics of compromise. The president has found a way to do the mostly right thing as well as to win confirmation of his latest FDA nominee, Dr. Andrew C. von Eschenbach. Good for him.

The sad part is that the people likely to be most in need of emergency contraception are the young teens being excluded. Like it or not, many are sexually active and don't know much about any kind of birth control. There's not much chance they will be sophisticated enough to visit a doctor, get a prescription and take the medication within 72 hours, after which it no longer works. The likely result will be more unwanted children, more ruined lives, more abortions.

So, the age restriction, too, is likely to change over time. Perhaps courts will strike it down as needlessly discriminatory, or senators, such as Democrats Patty Murray of Washington and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, will find other pressure points on which to prevail. Or the political climate will become more tolerant.

Meanwhile, a little flexibility from the White House helps.

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