Emergency contraception has a checkered political past, known as much for its effectiveness in preventing unplanned pregnancy as for its ability to ignite the disparate passions of reproductive rights and pro-life advocates alike. In navigating this tense landscape, various presidential administrations have taken divergent approaches. The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday took a step toward permissiveness that, coupled with a recent court order, extends emergency contraception's availability. That is the right direction.
The FDA rule would require that emergency contraception, specifically Plan B One Step, be available without a prescription for all women who are 15 and older. The medication would be sold with an age-verification protocol. It makes emergency contraception available in communities where, although it is legal, few pharmacists are willing to dispense it - a situation that has limited access not only to the medication but to the counseling that would help ensure it was being used safely and effectively, rather than out of fear and misinformation.
The ruling provides a safety net for a pending court case that would further broaden access to the contraception. In that case, a federal judge issued a ruling last month requiring that Plan B be made available to all women, regardless of their age, without a prescription. The degree of impact Tuesday's rule has will depend on whether the Obama administration appeals the court's decision. If so, the FDA rule provides a guaranteed access floor - an appropriate and long-awaited start.
If there is no appeal, though, Tuesday's rule becomes moot but not for its lack of merit. In issuing the policy, the FDA puts its weight behind the safety and effectiveness of emergency contraception, and muffles the political element of the debate significantly - though not altogether: By setting 15 as the age at which Plan B becomes available with no questions asked, the FDA is making an implicit statement about when sexual activity becomes acceptable. That is a significant question in itself, and not necessarily one for the FDA to address; it is better left for families and communities. It is, nevertheless, at the crux of the debate in that teens' sexual activity is, to some segments of U.S. culture, a bellwether for society's overall morality. If such activity exists, to some, it is a sure sign of our collective downfall.
Regardless, it does exist (and always has), and providing girls and women with a comprehensive set of tools to handle their sexuality in healthy ways is in the best interest of those individuals, their families, communities and the broader culture. Emergency contraception is one component of that collection, which must also include education and proactive forms of birth control.
Restricting or eliminating access to emergency contraception, or any contraception, will do little or nothing to stop women and men of any age from engaging in sexual activity. It simply limits the options available for making reproductive choices. Plan B has passed the FDA's test as safe and effective and as such, should be made readily available to those who seek it. The moral questions that sexual activity prompts are not insignificant, but they do not belong in the conversation surrounding a medication's efficacy. Tuesday's rule ensuring over-the-counter access to Plan B was wholly appropriate, as was the April court ruling.