By Jared Chausow
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It hurts enough for a top FDA official, Susan Wood, a biologist and former head of the agency's women's health office, to up and quit. On August 31, Wood sent out an e-mail message to agency staff announcing her resignation effective immediately. "I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended for approval by the professional staff here, has been overruled," she wrote. Trussell says many of his scientist contacts inside the agency feel "extreme discontent" these days. He adds, "It's a very discouraging place to work when the scientific evidence can get overruled by the political masters."
The day Wood resigned, Senators Clinton and Murray fired off a statement of their own, expressing their dismay. They responded to the news with a letter to Senator Enzi, urging him to keep his promise to hold a health committee hearing. Now the time has come, as they put it, "to allow science, not politics, to guide" the FDA.
Interestingly, opponents were also presenting their cause as a victim of politics. Concerned Women for America released a statement hailing Wood's exit, declaring things safer now that there's "one less political activist at the FDA who puts radical feminist ideology above women's health."
Evidently, as even Clinton staffers agree, the Plan B battle has no middle ground. "It feels like opponents just keep moving the goalposts," one aide confides.
Much of the senator's liberal base would have predicted as much. When she gave her speech calling for common ground on abortion, the sounds of ridicule and disgust could be heard all over the liberal blogosphere. People thought the senator was trying to make a deal with folks who aren't going to give an inch. They saw it as a sign of appeasement, a willingness to let the hard-right frame the debate.
But, as Steve Gilliard, who writes the liberal News Blog, in Manhattan, and who opened his post about Clinton's speech by asking, "Is she delusional?" points out, "Every time you try to find common ground with these folks, they raise the stakes." First they're against abortion. Then they're against contraception. Then they're against pharmacists filling birth-control prescriptions."
If the Plan B battle reveals anything, it's that the opponents' real agenda is not to prevent unintended pregnancy and abortion. If that were so, they would be for all forms of contraception. They'd be for better sex education. They'd be for more family-planning counseling. "The problem is the right doesn't want greater access to birth control," Gilliard says, "and their opposition to Plan B proves it."
For now, though, all proponents can do is try to keep fighting. On September 2, Senators Clinton and Murray, along with 11 other senators, reminded another government body, the Government Accountability Office, of their request, last year, for it to investigate whether the FDA's handling of Plan B was based on politics rather than science. Marcia Cross, of the GAO health-care team, says the investigation is not yet complete. But she tells the Voice that researchers will compare the FDA's ongoing delays of Plan B to other of its over-the-counter decisions, as well as to decisions on a range of contraceptive products.
Expect Clinton to make more moves soon, her staff says. "Everyone here is hoping there is a resolution as she and Senator Murray have defined it," her spokesperson Philippe Reines explains, by which he means a yes or no decision on Plan B. "This is a step back, but it's not over yet. The senator is really worked up about it."