White House Positions on Contraceptives Fuel Controversy on All Sides

By Stephen Spotswood

WASHINGTON — Controversy over access to birth control is continuing with the Department of Health and Human Services’ recent decision to cover birth control as a preventive service under the Affordable Care Act.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) called the Obama Administration’s decision “literally unconscionable,” with the group’s president, cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York saying, “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”

The Obama administration announced last month that it would give Catholic hospitals and other religious institutions an extra year to comply with a new requirement that most health plans provide contraceptive benefits at no cost to their members. Yet, in her announcement, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius held the line on the administration’s position that most health plans must eventually offer free contraception, exempting only a few types of religious institutions.

Wayne C. Shields, president and CEO of the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals (ARHP), which represents 12,000 reproductive health care providers, researchers, and educators, said, “Contraception is basic health care and fundamental to women’s health and the health of their families. Our members are proud to stand with the administration in rejecting the political pressure to expand the religious employer exemption in providing contraceptive coverage. This is a victory for science-based decision making and for the millions of women employed by religious institutions across this country.”

Interestingly, Sebelius’ supporters in this decision, such as the AHRP, were her angry detractors at the end of 2011 when she blocked the Plan B One-Step morning-after pill from being sold over the counter (OTC), overruling the recommendations made by FDA officials.

 In fact, Shields recently joined with other contraceptive industry advocates in asking the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology to determine the basis for the administration’s controversial decision to continue requiring that girls under age 17 must obtain a prescription to receive the morning after pill.

That was  the latest in a long line of controversial decisions surrounding Plan B. In February 2011, Teva Women’s Health Inc. submitted a supplemental new drug application to FDA seeking to make the Plan B One-Step available OTC for all girls of reproductive age. Currently, Plan B One-Step is available OTC for women 17 and older.  

In its Summary Review for Regulatory Action for the drug, FDA recommended approval of the application. After reviewing FDA’s approval, Sebelius indicated that she felt otherwise.

“The switch from prescription to over the counter for this product requires that we have enough evidence to show that those who use this medicine can understand the label and use the product appropriately,” Sebelius said in a statement following the announcement of her decision. “I do not believe that Teva’s application met that standard. The label comprehension and actual use studies did not contain data for all ages for which this product would be available for use.”

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