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The right call on Plan B

The approval should never have taken as long as it did

In approving the sale of the Plan B emergency contraceptive without a prescription Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration took an important step &

8212; more than two years late. Wide availability of the so-called morning-after pill should reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, and therefore abortions, in this country. The drug, which is just a high dose of regular birth-control pills, has been shown to be safe and effective, and there is no evidence that its availability increases sexual activity. It should not have taken three years of dithering to achieve what the FDA finally permitted: Over-the-counter sales for adults and continued sales to minors with a prescription.

The outcry among social conservatives as it became clear the FDA was moving toward approval highlights the political pressure the FDA faced in making it. Activists have called on President Bush to withdraw the nomination of acting FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach to be the agency's permanent chief. Thursday, the social conservative Traditional Values Coalition issued a statement saying that, "The people running the FDA should be introduced to George Bush who is a solid pro-life leader" &

8212; conveniently not mentioning that, just the other day, Bush declared that obtaining Plan B "ought to require a prescription for minors" and that "I support Andy's decision." In fact, the problem in this case was not that the FDA has somehow veered off to the left. Rather, it was the administration's unwillingness earlier to act according to what the science suggested.

The arrangements announced last week to prevent over-the-counter access by teens could surely have been worked out long ago; the application, after all, was submitted in 2003 and availability to minors has been the sticking point ever since. Only with von Eschenbach's nomination held up in the Senate as leverage did the issue get resolved. While the FDA has ultimately come up with a reasonable position, this is no way to make important decisions on science and public health.