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Democrats Are Still Compromising Away Women's Rights -- What's Wrong with the Pro-Choice Movement's Strategy?

After the Obama administration's decision to overrule the FDA on the morning-after pill, activists are asking yet again, what went wrong?
 
 
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On December 7, when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made her decision to overrule the FDA's recommendation that Plan B One-Step, the morning-after contraceptive pill, should be available over the counter, I wasn't surprised to get an email from Planned Parenthood. After all, PP sends me lots of emails -- in November, calling for action on birth control's inclusion in healthcare reform, for instance, or earlier in the year when its own funding from the government was under attack.

But I was surprised at the subject line: “I've Never Been So Inspired.”

The email was a thank-you to supporters from the organization's president, Cecile Richards, for their contributions and help in the past year, when Planned Parenthood, a service provider as well as the largest advocacy group on women's health and contraceptive issues, faced unprecedented attacks, both from antichoicers in Congress and from groups on the outside.

It didn't mention Plan B. Nor was an email on Plan B forthcoming. When I asked why this issue didn't warrant a blast, Tait Sye, Planned Parenthood spokesperson, seemingly caught off guard, told me that email blasts are not the only way PP communicates with supporters and that there were lots of posts on Facebook and Twitter about Plan B.

“In terms of accountability and what's next, Planned Parenthood has sent Secretary Sebelius a letter asking for a meeting to discuss this,” he said. (The letter can be read online at  Planned Parenthood's Web site [PDF].)

But what if Planned Parenthood and other prochoice organizations are suffering from too many meetings with the administration, rather than the other way around?

Sebelius ruled that women need to go through a pharmacist to access Plan B. The pill, which sells for about $50, had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for over-the-counter sales, because the agency found that it posed little danger to those who might take it—some of whom might be teenage girls.

The FDA, as well as the American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics, had recommended the pill be available even to girls 16 and under based on scientific research into the effects of the drug. Sebelius made her decision based in part, she said, on the fact that the pill had not been studied in girls as young as 11—despite the fact that the number of 11-year-olds who get pregnant is  vanishingly small. And, of course, allowing that tiny minority—only around 200 pregnancies each year involve girls 12 and younger—to get pregnant because they don't have access to contraceptives is not a responsible plan either.

As Joshua Holland reported for  AlterNet earlier this year, the number of unplanned pregnancies among low-income women, disproportionately women of color, has been on the rise. Plan B's high price tag already puts it out of reach for many, but requiring a prescription to get the drug would put yet another cost barrier in the way for young women.

The decision angered many in the prochoice community: physician and former assistant surgeon general Douglas Kamerow wrote at  NPR, “The Obama administration overruled its own Food and Drug Administration for political reasons, to make life easier in the coming campaign.” Amanda Marcotte  noted, “The administration likely sees teenage girls as an ideal sacrificial lamb to pander for votes, since the 16-and-under set won’t be able to vote in November 2012.”

And last week a federal judge expressed concerns about the administration's decision,  wondering whether it “was based on politics or science.”

Prochoice groups haven't been entirely silent on the issue;  NARAL Pro-Choice America delivered 35,000 signatures on a petition to President Obama expressing disappointment with the decision, nearly 10 days after it came down.