Hillary's Plan B

Clinton calls Bush's bluff on science, women's rights, and the morning-after pill

"That told me right there this is political," says Kirsten Moore, of Reproductive Health Technologies Project.

Same goes for Senator Clinton, who, with 23 colleagues, requested that the Senate health committee hold hearings on the matter, to no avail. She and 16 senators also called on the General Accounting Office to investigate whether the decision "was based on politics rather than scientific evidence."

The delay on Barr's latest application—which aims to resolve concerns about teen use of Plan B—has only heightened the suspicions of FDA critics, as have reports that surfaced about one FDA panel member who'd voted against Plan B, David Hager, a Kentucky doctor known for trying to incorporate Christianity into medicine. In May, The Nation reported that Hager had boasted about his influence within the FDA during an October 2004 church sermon, letting it slip that he'd written a report for the agency to keep Plan B off drugstore shelves.

Clinton, in typical fashion, fired off a letter to Health and Human Services secretary Michael Leavitt, who oversees the FDA, calling again for an investigation.

"Day by day," Clinton wrote, with Murray, "the public's confidence in the FDA's ability to make decisions based on scientific evidence of safety and efficacy is eroding."

So will Clinton's hold on the Crawford nomination move the issue? Will the FDA approve what amounts to one of the safest forms of contraception around? "Eventually, yes, but not until there's a change in administration," predicts Sharon Camp, of the Alan Guttmacher Institute in Manhattan, who helped bring Plan B to this country and who sold the idea to Barr Labs.

The FDA remains silent about its decision. Spokesperson Suzanne Trevino says simply, "We don't comment on time frames for pending applications." And she refused to comment on any aspect of the hold.

Barr Labs, for its part, seems unsure of what's coming. On the one hand, says Jake Hanson, the company's chief lobbyist, "you can read all the pressure as a good thing that will encourage the FDA to support Plan B." On the other, he notes, "those opposed to the pill have dug in their heels," adding, "I doubt that Lester Crawford is the cause of the long delay."

Even staunch defenders of women's reproductive rights have failed to back the hold. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts serves as ranking Democrat on the Senate health committee. He has made plain that he believes the FDA is playing politics with Plan B. Still, he has effectively ignored his Democratic colleagues, voicing his support for Crawford at the June 15 meeting.

Surprisingly, the one factor working in Clinton's favor comes from Republicans. Last month, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma announced that he, too, would be placing a hold on the Crawford nomination.

Coburn is a hardcore conservative, unlikely to support Plan B. Yet he disagrees with the FDA on other matters of sexuality. Today, according to Murray's office, Coburn's hold remains in effect until the agency issues new mandated labeling for condoms that would specify the limits of the contraceptive method. Meanwhile, two additional Republicans have chosen to block Crawford anonymously.

That the Republicans' unified front is cracking can only help Clinton and Murray. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist could overturn their hold with 61 votes, yet he may let it lie, choosing instead to keep the GOP division quiet. "We suspect he doesn't want to have a big fight about this issue," says one Clinton aide, "especially since it's related to sex."

No matter what happens, it seems, Clinton has played her hand smartly. Reproductive-rights advocates—some of whom were questioning her loyalty after her famous appeal for common ground in a speech about abortion last January (see "God Is a Centrist Democrat," March 3, 2005)—are now hailing her as "courageous," in the words of Nancy Keenan of NARAL Pro-Choice America. After all, advocates argue, the senator has kept one of the most important reproductive-rights issues in the spotlight. And she has put the White House on the defensive.

"It is outrageous that the Bush administration has ignored the science and has caved to the radical right on Plan B," Keenan says. So even if the tactic fails, she adds, " We'll be saying, 'See, you've just proven the senators right.' "

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