The Bush administration’s war against women’s reproductive rights has been thrown into the spotlight once again. A Nov. 14, 2005, report by the Government Accountability Office showed that the Food and Drug Administration’s rejection in May 2004 of the contraceptive pill Plan B as an over-the-counter drug was subject to “unusual” intervention by Bush administration officials.
The Plan B morning after pill offers safe emergency birth control.
Photo: Patrick Farrell
Plan B, commonly known as the “morning after” pill, acts to prevent pregnancy, and is especially effective if taken in the first 72 hours after sexual intercourse. It is currently available by prescription. Advocates of the over-the-counter status for the pill point out that the doctor’s visits required to obtain a prescription makes it harder for women to take advantage of the pill when it is most effective.
The FDA’s rejection of the pill’s availability over the counter in pharmacies came despite recommendations of many agencies within the FDA. The discrepancies between the recommendations and the rejection prompted the GAO review.
The GAO report focused on the FDA’s decision-making process regarding Plan B. It concludes that the process was highly “unusual.” Several aspects of the process stood out.
In the 10 years prior to the 2004 decision, the FDA approved 67 medications for sale without a prescription. Plan B stood out as the only drug denied approval after an advisory committee recommended it. (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 15, 2005)
The report also highlighted the role of then-FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002. “Several mid-level managers told congressional investigators they were notified by FDA superiors around January 2004 that easing access to Plan B ‘could not be approved,’” the LA Times reported. “Those marching orders were said to come from McClellan’s office, according to the report.”
The GAO also found that, “High-level management was more involved in the decision than is usually the case for over-the-counter approvals.”
In the course of the approval process, Susan F. Wood, who served as the assistant commissioner for women’s health at the FDA, resigned. She cited as her reason the FDA’s lack of independence.
Notably, the decision to reject Plan B was made before the scientific review was completed. An advisory medical review committee voted 23-4 to approve over-the-counter sales in December 2003. “Within days of the committee’s vote, however, Dr. Janet Woodcock, the FDA’s acting deputy commissioner of operations, and Dr. Steven Galson, acting director of its drug center, told four top staff members that the application would be rejected, even though the agency’s scientific review of the application had yet to be completed,” according to the Nov. 15 New York Times.
Two other FDA offices, the Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee and the Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, and two outside panels also recommended approving the Plan B pill without a prescription.
Women’s rights activists face off against anti-women religious bigots in Boston, 2005.
Photo: Marilyn Humphries
Plan B and other similar morning-after pills initially came under attack by social and religious conservatives as an abortion-causing drug. But repeated scientific studies showed that the high-hormone pills function by preventing pregnancy.
That did not end the debate, though. The same right-wing forces opened up a new line of attack against Plan B, saying that over-the-counter availability of the pill would increase sexual activity amongst teenagers. That was the argument that ultimately derailed the drug in the recent FDA approval process.
Of course, the argument is ludicrous. It is like saying that increasing sales of umbrellas will cause more rain.
But this line of thinking runs throughout the Bush administration’s health policy. It is reflected in the “abstinence-only” sex education promoted by the right wing—when they promote sex education at all.
The right wing frames the debate in terms of morality, most often some form of conservative religious morality. But beneath all the talk of right and wrong, one message stands out: women, especially young women, must not be able to control their own bodies. What is guiding the right-wing public policy is this anti-woman agenda—and has nothing to do with the actual health and well-being of young people.
This patronizing approach gives a clue as to what is at the core of the right wing’s strong opposition to something as simple as a new form of contraceptive. Widespread availability of birth control, abortion and other reproductive medicine has been an important factor in women’s increasing economic independence in the workplace and in education.
Since the beginning of class society, women’s oppression has been a core component of maintaining the exploitation of the vast majority of society—women and men. Under capitalism, the idea promoted by social and religious conservatives that “a woman’s place is in the home” is central to sexism and male supremacist ideologies. It gives justification for the lower pay that women workers receive to this day.
Women’s reproductive rights undermine the objective base of that ideology. That is what the right wing fears most about every new advance in reproductive medicine like Plan B.
Winning reproductive rights
The revelations about the Bush administration’s crusade against Plan B did not come from the organized women’s movement—although women’s groups had been charging right-wing interference in the approval process from the beginning. Instead, it came from another governmental organization—the GAO.
That shows a basic rift within the ruling class on the issue of women’s reproductive rights. Immediately following the GAO report’s release, a number of Democratic congresspeople took the moment to criticize the Bush administration.
Such splits within the ruling class can give an opening for a mass movement to roll back the right wing’s anti-woman agenda.
They also carry with them the danger that large sectors of the movement can be herded into the confines of a loyal opposition—“safe” for the ruling class of bankers and corporate executives.
Democratic politicians posture as the protectors of women’s reproductive rights. They cannot be trusted. Under the Clinton presidency, access to abortion services dropped. And it was Jimmy Carter who signed into law the Hyde Amendment, prohibiting Medicaid funding for abortion services.
Women’s reproductive rights—the right to have children or not, the right to medical care, the right to safe and legal abortion—have been fought for since the 19th century and before. Winning them will not come from the patronage of the liberal bourgeoisie. It will come from the militant struggle and mass organizing on the part of women activists and their allies.