WASHINGTON -- Women's rights groups expressed outrage on Wednesday when a top Obama administration official overruled a recommendation from government scientists to expand access to the morning-after pill, but Democratic members of Congress are being far more cautious with their criticism.
In an unprecedented and unexpected move, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius rejected the Food and Drug Administration's conclusion that the Plan B One-Step pill was safe enough to be placed on pharmacy shelves without an age limit. The decision raised eyebrows because HHS has never before overruled the FDA on a drug recommendation. Many reproductive rights groups openly questioned whether the Obama administration was putting electoral politics above sound science ahead of next year's election.
"We are outraged the HHS is playing politics with women's health, overruling even the scientific conclusions of the FDA commissioner," said Kirsten Moore, president and CEO of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, on Wednesday. She pointed to a March 2009 executive order by President Obama that pledged his commitment to scientific integrity, noting, "This decision flies in the face of that commitment."
Obama said on Thursday that he had nothing to do with Sebelius' decision, but that he fully stood behind it. Democratic lawmakers who supported the FDA recommendation, for the most part, are holding their fire, breaking with the national organizations, at least for now.
"I actually think the administration is playing triage," said one Democrat in Congress, who didn't want to be named while discussing the politics of the reproductive rights battle. "There are a number of choice issues on their plate right now, and they're trying to not lose the forest for the trees. In the macro picture of choice issues, you know, there are greater attacks being waged right now that will have an incredibly profound impact on women if we don't address them properly. If we lose the contraceptive fight, that's devastating."
Obama will be deciding any day now on whether to expand a religious exemption that would allow Catholic hospitals and schools to deny their employees contraception coverage, which some women in Congress see as a bigger deal than the battle over the morning-after pill.
"I think that while this was huge, [the birth control decision] is really, really huge and has an impact on millions and millions of women who would not have access to birth control," said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.). "I'm withholding my dragon fire for that. I think the president has not been with us 100 percent, but I don't think he's thrown women totally under the bus -- if he says he did not intervene in this decision, I believe him."
Aides to pro-choice women in the Senate who are typically responsive were mostly silent throughout the day. The Huffington Post contacted 13 such offices and received only two responses, statements from Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Two Democratic aides said Murray's office was taking the lead on responding, and her office confirmed that the senator would be writing a letter asking the administration for more information on the decision.
Murray's statement, at least, is a sternly worded condemnation of the decision, charging the administration with putting politics over science.
"I'm very disappointed that Secretary Sebelius has chosen to override the careful scientific analysis of the FDA by blocking further access to emergency contraception," she said. "In this case, both the FDA and the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research did careful analysis and determined that Plan B is safe and effective for over-the-counter use by more women. That analysis included a thorough review of whether young women understood usage restrictions."
But that was the extent, more or less, of the push back from the Hill.
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a member of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus who pushed hard for Plan B to be made available over the counter to women of all ages, said that while she was "disappointed" in Sebelius' decision, she believed it came from a place of genuine concern for young girls and is still "a work in progress."
"[The decision] should be scientifically based, but what the administration told me is they're gonna go back and get more data on this rule," she told The Huffington Post. "I think most of the female voters would understand. You might disagree with science, but most voters would say an 11-year-old who wants the morning-after pill, there should be some adult interaction. Most people wouldn't be outraged that [HHS wants] to see some kind of basis for that."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also refused to take sides.
"I have the highest respect for Dr. Peggy Hamburg, the head of the FDA, and the recommendation that she made based on science," she said at a press conference on Thursday. "But it wasn't satisfactory to the secretary for younger girls, and so perhaps more science is necessary."
Like Pelosi, Boxer framed her statement in a way that would allow the administration to approve a new, tweaked FDA rule. "I have always believed in science -- both behavioral and clinical -- in determining such issues. In this case I am disappointed that the Secretary didn't feel she had enough data. I hope she will get that data in short order and then follow the recommendations of the FDA," Boxer said.
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) was a bit more forceful. "I am very disappointed by this decision," she told HUffPost. "As the FDA found, emergency contraception is a safe and effective option for women to have control over their own bodies. In a time when there have been so many attacks on women's reproductive rights, this is another disappointing setback."
The decision over whether to restrict access to emergency contraception has been embroiled in politics since 2005. The American Medical Association, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all strongly endorsed over-the-counter access to Plan B with no age restrictions, so that it could be found on pharmacy shelves as easily as Tylenol. But the FDA suspiciously delayed the decision under the George W. Bush administration in 2005, prompting a legal investigation.
Obama campaigned against the Bush administration's politicization of science, so has little room for error.
"This might speak to some need for some legislation to make sure there's more light between agencies that are supposed to act on science, and what might be politically-motivated decisions," Moore said. "[Obama] did promise that science would be the leading factor in decisions this administration made, and it certainly would be troubling if this were the beginning of an anti-science administration with regard to other things that are on the table. I would not want to see the FDA or surgeon general or anybody else being made mum by political or campaign considerations."
CORRECTION: This article originally incorrectly stated that Patty Murray is a senator from New York. She is a senator from Washington.