May 12, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Did politics influence FDA panel’s decision to back sale of over-the-counter birth control pill?
God, let's hope so.
I am not saying that a panel of federal health advisers at the US Food and Drug Administration acted politically when it said Wednesday that a decades-old birth control pill should be sold over-the-counter. But I am saying it looks that way.
Thank God for that.
The Associated Press reported that a “panel of FDA advisers voted unanimously in favor of drugmaker Perrigo’s request to sell its once-a-day medication on store shelves alongside eye drops and allergy pills.
“The recommendation came at the close of a two-day meeting focused on whether women could safely and effectively take the pill without professional supervision. A final FDA decision is expected this summer.”
The drug, called Opill, was first approved 50 years ago. It’s more than 90 percent effective when taken daily. Its approval wouldn’t apply to other pills, but other drug makers are expected to seek approval. Birth control pills are widely available in most of the rest of the world.
Like I said, I’m not saying the FDA panel acted politically. It seems to have based its recommendation soundly on fact and science.
Still, choices were made.
There was concern about whether consumers would understand how to take it on their own. But the panel decided the benefits of broad availability outweighed concern about reading comprehension. It also said that young people and lower-income groups would benefit most.
That looks political.
Again, thank God for that.
We worry about institutions like the Food and Drug Administration doing things for “political reasons.” We believe they should act “objectively.” But as I often say, human organization and development never occur in a vacuum. Politics is always already with us.
The question should not be whether politics is or isn’t with us. It should be whether it’s good or bad. In a republic like ours, the question should be whether that politics is in the interest of the common good.
If the FDA skips over fact and science to fasttrack a drug so that a pharmaceutical firm can turn a profit faster (it is periodically accused of such things), that’s not in the common good’s interest. That’s bad politics. When it greenlights, for over-the-counter use, a drug known to be effective, it is in the common good’s interest. That’s good politics.
Greenlighting such a drug is especially good politics in a time in our history when the bodies of women are becoming subject to increasing regulation by state governments dominated by illiberal Republicans.
Abortion wasn’t the only thing affected by the fall of Roe. As long it stood, so stood the right to privacy. Now, states run by illiberals are experimenting with ways to regulate all private affairs. That includes not just abortion but the entire gamut of reproductive fate-making.
Meaning, birth control – condoms, IUDs, the pill, etc.
The illiberals believe abortion is a form of birth control (it isn’t). We can’t expect them to honor the difference now that the Supreme Court has given them the authority to regulate women’s bodies. So far, only the most extreme are talking about banning birth control. In time, however, we can expect that thinking to drift toward the GOP’s center.
In this sense, Wednesday’s recommendation reflects an emerging pattern – a tightening of regulatory circles around the bodies of women at the state level and a loosening of them at the federal level (for now).
The Biden administration has said it’s legal to deliver mifepristone (the so-called abortion pill) through the US mail, even into illiberal states with severe restrictions on abortion. The administration is also fighting an effort in federal courts to reverse its approval by the FDA.
Now, with this new recommendation by the FDA’s panel, the Biden administration is broadening access to birth control pills. It is therefore creating political conditions in which abortion services might not be needed, especially for young people and lower-income groups.
That’s good politics.
Thank God for that.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.