Now It's the Administration's Turn to Be Anti-Science

Jon Huntsman has been taking flak for apparent wavering from the "I'll listen to scientists about science" stance involving climate change. (Understanding whether climate change is happening, as the overwhelming preponderance of world science says it is, is of course different from agreeing on what can and should be done about it.)

It's worth giving the Obama Administration flak for today's disheartening decision by the Secretary of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, to overrule the scientists in her own Food and Drug Administration who recommended allowing over-the-counter sale of "Plan B" contraceptives. As the NYT story on the ruling says, the head of the FDA, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, recommended the change:

The agency's scientists, [Hamburg] wrote, "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 disease."...

After reviewing the scientists' determination, Dr. Hamburg wrote that she agreed "that there is adequate and reasonable, well-supported and science-based evidence that Plan B One-Step is safe and effective and should be approved for nonprescription use for all females of child-bearing potential."

Why did Sebelius take the [apparently unprecedented] step of overruling the FDA? According to the Washington Post's story (emphasis added):

In a separate statement and letter to Hamburg, Sebelius said she overruled the FDA because she had concluded that data submitted by the company that makes the drug did not "conclusively establish" that it could be used safely by girls of all ages. "About 10 percent of girls are physically capable of bearing children by 11.1 years of age. It is common knowledge that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age," Sebelius said. "If the application were approved, the product would be available, without prescription, for all girls of reproductive age."

This does not pass the straight-face test. The drugstore aisles are full of over-the-counter products that might be dangerous if taken without limit by 11-year-olds. And obviously the FDA scientists' panel would have considered these risks, as they do for any drug.

Scientists do not have the final word on all matters of public policy, but this was an expert panel operating in its area of presumed and assigned competence. The decision to overrule them would look clumsily political and anti-science if it had been made in a Bachmann Administration. Unless Sec. Sibelius has better reasons than she has offered so far, it looks that way in an Obama Administration too.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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