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Why the White House is fighting greater access to the morning-after pill

The Justice Department is appealing a court decision that would make Plan B available to women of all ages without a prescription

Reprinted from The Week

Earlier this week, the FDA announced that the morning-after pill would be available to women ages 15 and older without a prescription — down from the previous age limit of 17.

But that has hardly pleased reproductive rights advocates like Andrea Costello, who said, “The Obama administration is speaking out of both sides of its mouth when it comes to basic rights of women and girls, as shown by its political decision issued by the FDA late yesterday.”

Why the hate? The reason is that Costello, a senior attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, actually fought in federal court to make the Plan B emergency contraceptive pill available to women of all ages without a prescription.

She won that case, and now the Justice Department is appealing the court decision and asking Judge Edward Korman to stay his ruling, which otherwise will go into effect on Sunday.

Why would the White House make Plan B more easily available, and then fight a court ruling that achieved just that?

It’s called hedging your political bets. This started back in 2011, when Kathleen Sebelius, head of Health and Human Services, overruled scientists at the FDA who said that over-the-counter Plan B was safe for girls of all ages.

It’s no wonder that critics see the FDA’s new 15-year-old age limit as a way to preempt criticism from the left, as opposed to advancing women’s access to emergency contraception.

And appealing the federal court ruling seems like the logical second step in Obama’s strategy to “reaffirm a moderate position in the broader abortion debate that had drawn praise from conservative groups that are normally highly critical of the president,” says Pam Belluck at The New York Times.

The White House’s triangulation has displeased women’s reproduction rights advocates. The National Organization for Women released a statement calling the Justice Department’s decision to appeal “a step backwards for women’s health.”

It also could have very practical consequences for teens, writes Salon’s Irin Carmon on Twitter:

More problems w/ admin’s Plan B policy: 1. ID requirement hard especially for younger teens, immigrants. 2. Only sold at stores w pharmacies
— Irin Carmon (@irincarmon) May 2, 2013

And don’t believe the administration’s claim that the limits are based on safety concerns, says The Nation’s Jessica Valenti. Instead, she argues, the age limits reflect societal values about sex:

The truth is that the age restriction is completely arbitrary, tied only to our puritanical comfort levels. And listen, I get it; I think it’s fair to say that most people are uncomfortable with the idea of a 14-year-old having sex. But here’s the thing — access to Plan B isn’t about keeping a 14-year-old from having sex — by the time she gets to the pharmacy, that ship has sailed — it’s about keeping a 14-year-old who has already had sex from getting pregnant. [The Nation]

The White House knows that liberals, despite their objections, will at least appreciate the fact the age limit has been lowered. Throw in praise from people like Sarah Torre of the conservative Heritage Foundation — who thanked the President for expressing concern “over jeopardizing doctors’ and parents’ ability to discuss and direct the health care of minor children” — and you have a found a spot at the center of the debate. It won’t make anybody all that happy, but it could spare the White House the headache of activists picketing outside the window.