Nine women protesting the Food and Drug Administration's position on the emergency contraceptive Plan B were arrested yesterday when they blocked entry to the agency's Rockville headquarters.
The women, part of a noisy protest in favor of making the morning-after pill available without a prescription, were taken away by officers of the Department of Homeland Security and charged with disorderly conduct.
Allison Guttu is arrested outside the Health and Human Services Building in Rockville protesting the prescription policy of Plan B.
(Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
The protesters said they wanted to speak with Steven Galson, acting director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, who in May rejected an application to allow Plan B to be sold over the counter. FDA staff reviewers and an advisory panel of outside experts had strongly recommended approval, saying the emergency contraceptive could be safely sold without a prescription.
Yesterday's protest came as the agency is preparing to rule later this month on a second application by Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc. to make Plan B more easily accessible. That proposal would allow the drug to be sold to females older than 16 without a prescription but would require a doctor's order for those younger.
One of the protest organizers, Alex Leader from New York, said the demonstrators opposed any age restrictions and are concerned that the agency will not approve the new application at all.
"We don't trust the FDA at this point," Leader said. "The Bush administration is playing to its social conservatives by not approving Plan B, even though the experts say it's safe. Women need this drug available now."
FDA officials said Galson was not available to meet the women but that acting Deputy Commissioner Janet Woodcock would be willing to see five of the demonstrators. They rejected the offer.
About 40 protesters, mostly from Florida and New York, took part in the demonstration. Three representatives of Concerned Women for America, which opposes easier access to Plan B, were also present.
Wendy Wright, policy director for the group, said she hopes that "the FDA won't base its decision on stunts like this." She said allowing nonprescription sales "would be simply disastrous."
"You could have a 40-year-old man who is committing statutory rape on a 14-year-old simply going in and picking up Plan B himself. An age limit won't stop anyone."
The Bush administration has been cool to the expanded use of emergency contraception, which some conservatives see as a form of abortion. This week, the Justice Department issued guidelines for treating rape victims that make no mention of emergency contraception, leading to criticism from women's health groups and others that a standard precaution for rape victims was being ignored. A department spokesman said the new guidelines do not "supersede the many state, local and tribal protocols that are currently in practice."
Kelly Mangan, a National Organization for Women activist from Florida who was among those arrested, said the group has pledges from 2,000 other women to break the law by sharing their prescription-purchased Plan B with women who need it but have no prescription.
Studies have shown that emergency contraception works for about 72 hours after unprotected sex but is best used within 24 hours. The need for speed is a key argument made by advocates of easier access.
Also yesterday, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists called on the FDA to approve the new application.
"ACOG and other organizations have estimated that greater access to emergency contraceptives could cut the U.S. unintended pregnancy and abortion rates in half," the group said in a statement.