In December 2011, Obama said he was not involved in Sebelius’s decision to override the FDA’s opinion that the contraceptives should be available to people of all ages without a prescription. But, he added, “as the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine.”
That explanation did little to quell outrage from those who supported relaxing the restrictions to help women of any age prevent unwanted pregnancies. Many of those groups argued that the administration had made a politically driven decision in an effort to appease conservative, religious voters and antiabortion advocates heading into an election year.
Plan B is classified by the FDA as an emergency contraceptive and greatly reduces the chance of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after intercourse. It differs from abortion drugs such as RU486, which is intended to terminate a pregnancy that already has been established.
Plan B for more than a decade has seen a number of obstacles in obtaining federal approvals. Multiple government officials have resigned over the issue and, because of the infighting, a complicated web of regulations now exists around the product.
The FDA first approved Plan B as a prescription emergency contraceptive in 1999. In 2003, its manufacturer asked the FDA to make the drug available over the counter. The FDA rejected that request, citing a lack of data on how the drug affected young teenagers.
In 2005, two FDA officials resigned when the agency announced plans to indefinitely postpone any further review of allowing Plan B to be sold over the counter. Within a year, however, the agency decided it would allow women older than 18 to purchase the drug without a prescription, although they would still need to request it from the pharmacist.
Susan Wood, former director of the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health and one of the officials who resigned in 2005, thinks the changing political landscape could finally put an end to the decade-long controversy.
She cites the White House’s decision to require employers to provide contraceptives without co-pay, part of the Affordable Care Act, as evidence that expanding birth control access can be a winning issue.
“I think we’re now in a place where hopefully even folks in the political realm appreciate the fact that contraceptives are something that men and women support,” she said. “Most Americans don’t see this as controversial.”
Scott Wilson contributed to this report.