Plan B is an emergency contraceptive, sometimes called “the morning after pill,” that has been approved as safe and effective for its intended use by the Food and Drug Administration. The drug’s safety is pretty much beyond dispute. However, it is access to Plan B that is proving controversial. In question is whether Plan B can be available over-the-counter or on a prescription basis for all women of child-bearing potential. This includes those under 18 years of age. FDA had said yes. In an unprecedented decision, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, overturned a decision by FDA. The decision, in early December, has largely been overlooked by the general public with the onset of the holidays and college football bowl games. However, it has profound implications for millions of Americans and perhaps the way FDA approves drugs in the future. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg issued a public statement after the decision defending FDA’s scientists who had recommended the OTC approval (see below).
The following Guest Commentary by April Mayberry discusses this decision. In it she gives her opinion on the Plan B decision. GxP Perspectives, as always, welcomes your own viewpoints and opinions.
When Politics & Science CollideAs a clinical research professional working in women’s reproductive health and contraceptive development, I was disturbed by Dr. Sebelius’ decision to override the FDA’s decision to allow OTC access to Plan B for girls under 17. First my reaction was concern about the impact this will have on women and contraceptive development. Second was to wonder why Dr. Sebelius, an Obama appointee with a strong reputation for supporting reproductive rights, would make such a decision.
In her statement posted on the HHS website, Sebelius said that Teva didn’t provide sufficient evidence that Plan B could be used safely in very young adolescent girls, or that they could understand the labeling. She said if Teva could produce data to the contrary they could refile. If Sebelius’ decision was intended to protect girls, it doesn’t seem logical.
• An adolescent girl has a much higher chance of serious complications from an unintended pregnancy or an abortion than from Plan B.
• Other potentially dangerous OTCs used, and even abused, by young women have no such restrictions. This includes diet pills, cold medicines, aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, all of which are associated with serious and/or fatal AEs.
• In my experience, controversial products not indicated to treat immediately life-threatening conditions must meet a particularly high approval standard. In a public statement appearing on the FDA website, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said:
“The Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) completed its review of the Plan B One-Step application and laid out its scientific determination. CDER carefully considered whether younger females were able to understand how to use Plan B One-Step. Based on the information submitted to the agency, CDER determined that the product was safe and effective in adolescent females, that adolescent females understood the product was not for routine use, and that the product would not protect them against sexually transmitted diseases. Additionally, the data supported a finding that adolescent females could use Plan B One-Step properly without the intervention of a healthcare provider.” In the same statement Dr. Hamburg contended that:“The review process used by CDER to analyze the data applied a risk/benefit assessment consistent with its standard drug review process. Our decision-making reflects a body of scientific findings, input from external scientific advisory committees, and data contained in the application that included studies designed specifically to address the regulatory standards for nonprescription drugs. CDER experts, including obstetrician/gynecologists and pediatricians, reviewed the totality of the data and agreed that it met the regulatory standard for a nonprescription drug and that Plan B One-Step should be approved for all females of child-bearing potential.”
So if FDA used the standard review process why isn’t it enough? Most agree this decision was not based on science. One can only speculate why Sebelius, an Obama appointee, with a strong record regarding women’s reproductive rights, would do this. Possible reasons that come to mind are:
There has been pressure from the religious right on the government against Plan B and contraceptives in general. Plan B is of particular contention, because some mistakenly believe that it terminates pregnancy. Reportedly while governor of Kansas, Sebelius at times modified policy under pressure when it was seen as a political advantage
(also reportedly in these instances the decisions didn’t pose a risk of clinical or other harm to women. In light of reports that she is a subject of backlash by the church.) and of a lawsuit by Belmont Abbey College over the mandate requiring them to provide contraceptive coverage in their health plan, it’s feasible OTC access to Plan B for girls under 18 was sacrificed in lieu of mandates Sebelius considers more crucial, such as requiring health-care plans to provide contraceptive coverage. (Sources: RealityCheck.org, National Catholic Register, and Washington Times)
Women over 17 are also affected. Having to present an ID to a pharmacist can cause distress for some. Additionally many pharmacies have limited hours, and in some states some pharmacists may refuse to provide Plan B under the “conscious clause”, all causing delays in accessing it within the optimal treatment window. This is of particular concern for poor women in some rural or inner city communities with few pharmacies and for women with no ID.
Sebelius’ decision may also stifle contraceptive development. According the New York Times this is the first time that the HHS has blocked approval of a product by the FDA. This sets a precedent, allowing approval of contraceptives or other controversial medical products to be blocked without scientifically valid reasons. This is very problematic, because it allows those with political motives to take our national policies and the scientific process hostage to fulfill their own agenda, simply by applying enough political pressure.
April Mayberry, RAC, CCRA, CCRP, CFPHW *
* Certified Family Planning Health Worker
January GCP Training Opportunities:
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At the same time and the same place the Trial Master File Summit is taking place with some excellent speakers. Find out more:
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Please comment with your views and opinions!