Kathleen Sebelius Pressed On Plan B Decision By 14 Democratic Senators

WASHINGTON -- Fourteen Democratic senators, led by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), sent the Obama administration a letter on Tuesday asking for the scientific basis behind its decision to limit access to emergency contraception.

Last week, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary 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 writing to express our disappointment with your December 7, 2011 decision to block the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recommendation to make Plan B One-Step available over-the-counter," wrote the senators in their letter to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. "We feel strongly that FDA regulations should be based on science. We write to you today to ask that you provide us with the rationale for this decision."

The senators asked Sebelius to share the "specific rationale and the scientific data" she relied upon when overruling FDA experts.

"On behalf of the millions of women we represent, we want to be assured that this and future decisions affecting women's health will be based on medical and scientific evidence," they concluded.

Besides Murray, the Senate Demorats who signed the letter were Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Daniel Akaka (Hawaii), Carl Levin (Mich.), John Kerry (Mass.), Tom Harkin (Iowa), Al Franken (Minn.), Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Maria Cantwell (Wash.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.). Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also signed on.

HHS did not return a request for comment on the letter.

Sebelius has stated that she rejected the FDA's conclusion because she believed the pill's effect on girls in the 11-12 age range needed to be studied further.

Yet as Susan Wood, a former FDA official who resigned in 2005 to protest what she saw as the Bush administration's politicization of Plan B, has noted, "[T]his type of age restriction, and worries about the use of medicines by teenagers, have not been applied to other products. Apparently there is no problem in allowing younger teens to purchase products such as acetaminophen, and others with known and serious risks, over the counter."

Murray has been a leading voice on Plan B access in the Senate. In 2005, she and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) announced they were blocking the nomination of Lester Crawford, President George W. Bush's choice to head the FDA, until the agency made a decision about whether to make Plan B available over the counter without a prescription.

Many pro-choice House members have been far more cautious in their criticism of the Obama administration in the aftermath of Sebelius' decision, saying it could be a smart political move if officials are able to expand reproductive rights for women in other areas in exchange for tighter restrictions on Plan B.