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Bush urged to reject over-the-counter ‘morning-after pill’

WASHINGTON (BP)–Forty-nine members of Congress have called on President Bush to deny a recommendation from within the Food and Drug Administration to approve over-the-counter sales of a “morning-after” pill.

In the letter, Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., and his fellow representatives urged the president and FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan to reject the vote of two advisory committees endorsing sale of the Plan B “emergency contraceptive” without a prescription. The combined panels voted 23-4 in mid-December to support over-the-counter sales of the drug, which pro-family and pro-life advocates say will not only increase sexually transmitted diseases among young people but also can cause abortions.

“I’m strongly supportive of their petition,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, of the congressional letter. “Over-the-counter sales of Plan B are going to be disastrous for young women in this country.”

The members of Congress who wrote Bush focused on the potential health impact on young people.

“[O]nly the drug’s safety and its effect on pregnancy were considered [by the committees] — without considering the significant impact over-the-counter availability of this product may have on the sexual health of adolescents and young people,” they said in the Jan. 9 letter to Bush. “We are concerned that adolescent exposure to sexually transmitted infection will increase because of the availability of [Plan B] over-the-counter. This availability may ultimately result in significant increases in cancer, infertility and HIV/AIDS.”

Young people from 15 to 24 years of age are “at the greatest risk for acquiring sexually transmitted infections,” the representatives wrote. About two-thirds of those with STIs are under 25, and 15 million new cases are diagnosed each year, they told Bush.

Among the sexually transmitted diseases they noted as prevalent among the young in addition to HIV/AIDS are chlamydia, which commonly produces pelvic inflammatory disease and can result in infertility; gonorrhea and herpes simplex virus infection (HSV-2).

Forty-five million Americans age 12 and older have HSV-2, according to the letter.

The FDA plans to announce a decision on the panels’ recommendation in February, The Washington Times reported. While the FDA is not required to endorse its panels’ recommendations, it normally does.

Plan B now is approved for purchase with a prescription, but supporters of over-the-counter sales argue the method’s value is limited by the need to obtain it quickly when sexual intercourse has occurred without the use of another form of contraception. Plan B is recommended for use in the first 72 hours after sex, but it is even more effective in the first 24 hours.

Plan B works by restricting ovulation in a woman, and supporters argue it will prevent unplanned pregnancies and abortion. Opponents, however, say the method also can work after conception, blocking implantation of a tiny embryo in the uterine wall. In such a case, an abortion occurs, pro-lifers point out.

“Many women will buy the lie that they are actually preventing pregnancy, when in reality, in many cases, all they will have done is terminate a very early pregnancy, an abortion in other words,” Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy, has said.

“Emergency contraception” is basically a heavier dose of birth control pills. In the “morning-after” regimen, a woman takes two pills within 72 hours and another dose 12 hours later. In addition to Plan B, the FDA also has approved prescription use of another “emergency contraceptive,” Preven. The FDA approved Preven before Plan B in 1998.

The FDA’s Nonprescription Drugs and Reproductive Health Drugs advisory committees made their joint recommendation Dec. 16 after a day of hearings on the proposal.

The argument over whether “emergency contraceptives” cause abortions is partly a disagreement over the definition of pregnancy.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which supports over-the-counter sale of Plan B, says pregnancy does not begin until the fertilized ovum is implanted in the uterine wall. To pro-lifers, and those who abide by the traditional understanding, pregnancy begins with the union of a sperm and an egg — known as fertilization or conception.

ACOG’s redefinition of pregnancy took place in the mid-1970s. Its equating of implantation, which occurs about six days after fertilization, with the beginning of pregnancy explains why ACOG and others describe methods that prevent implantation as contraception rather than abortion.