It is no great secret that Democrats have been losing political fights over abortion for a while. And it's no great secret why. Although a majority of Americans agree with liberals that abortion should be legal, the right has succeeded in starting political debates that end up making liberals look like extremists. One method has been to focus on partial-birth abortion, a practice that most Americans oppose because it seems cruel. Another successful strategy, as William Saletan explains in the book Bearing Right, has been to push parental consent laws, turning the argument about abortion into a referendum on public attitudes toward sex and the rights of parents. But cultural conservatives have never ceded the more extreme elements of their agenda--something that will become apparent if a new controversy gets the scrutiny it deserves.
At issue is Plan B, a drug manufactured by Barr Laboratories and better known as the "morning-after pill."
In 1999, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the application.
The move got little attention amid the controversy over RU-486, the chemical compound that induces abortions even weeks into pregnancy (something Plan B can't do). But use of Plan B remains infrequent, partly because it can be difficult to obtain the drug quickly enough. As a result, women's health advocates have embraced a Barr proposal to make Plan B available "behind the counter"--meaning pharmacists could dispense it without a prescription--to women over 16 years of age.
This time, conservatives are making noise. A year ago, 49 Republican representatives wrote President Bush, urging him to block approval of Barr's FDA application. And, while the FDA's own scientific advisory panel endorsed the application by a vote of 23 to four, the Agency has withheld approval.
Plan B's most outspoken critic, the right-wing Concerned Women for America, insists it is actually worried about safety, given the lack of studies on the pill's long-term effects. But the vast majority of medical experts say Plan B is completely safe, in part because birth-control pills have such a well-established safety record themselves.
A less flimsy argument against Plan B is that it is tantamount to abortion. While science has demonstrated that Plan B works, it has not shown definitively how Plan B works.
The other serious argument against Plan B is that it will increase risky sexual activity by young people.
When conservatives talk about Plan B, they conjure up images of lust-crazed college girls engaging in one-night stands, then reaching over empty beer bottles to grab their supersized Plan B jars. But the one group to whom emergency contraception would make the greatest difference is rape victims.
Apparently, elements of the right are so committed to their stark definition of life and so concerned about hypothetical cultural signals that they would prefer rape victims become pregnant than inform them about emergency contraception. Who are the extremists now?
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at TNR. He is currently writing a book on the U.S. health-care system.
Copyright 2005, The New Republic