WASHINGTON – Anti-abortion groups are urging President Bush to withdraw his nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration, angry that the agency may allow nonprescription sales of the morning-after pill.
Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach already is facing a roadblock from the other side of that issue. Democrats are upset that the FDA has long delayed settling the three-year debate over whether at least some women could buy the emergency contraceptive without a doctor's note.
Amid the political accusations, the FDA is contacting both the anti-abortion groups and their main opponent, Planned Parenthood, to hear their last-minute arguments over the fate of the drug, called Plan B.
"I gave them an earful," said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, which has led opposition to nonprescription sales of the emergency contraceptive. She believes that her earlier input, during an official public comment period, was ignored.
"It is very late in the game and that adds to our fury over this," Wright said.
Her group and at least four others have issued a flurry of statements in recent days saying von Eschenbach, a well-known surgeon who has headed the National Cancer Institute, would endanger women's health if he relaxed sales restrictions on the drug. Plan B is available only by prescription in most states.
"If the president pushes for this nominee, he is only going to undercut the support his own party needs in the elections," said Paul Chaim Schenck, director of the National Pro-Life Action Center.
Two Democrats already had placed a hold on von Eschenbach's confirmation vote in the Senate pending FDA's final decision on Plan B, even though they don't question his qualifications to head the agency.
Bush "continues to strongly support Dr. von Eschenbach's nomination," White House spokesman Tony Snow said in a statement.
Plan B is a high dose of a drug found in many regular birth control pills that, taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, can lower the risk of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. If a woman already is pregnant, the pills have no effect.
The pills prevent ovulation or fertilization of an egg. They also may prevent a fertilized egg from implanting into the uterus, considered the medical definition of pregnancy, although recent research suggests that's not likely. However, if true, pill opponents argue that would be tantamount to abortion.
A year ago, the FDA indefinitely postponed a decision on Plan B, saying it needed to determine how to enforce age restrictions on the drug's sales, a process that would require the writing of new regulations.
On July 31, von Eschenbach told Plan B manufacturer Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc. that step was no longer necessary. He said the FDA would consider allowing nonprescription sales of Plan B, but only for adult women. It would remain prescription-only for those 17 and younger.
In the days following FDA's surprise announcement that it was reconsidering Plan B, the agency began contacting the various groups for more comment.
FDA spokeswoman Susan Bro said the agency has a responsibility to engage all of its constituents.
"We always reach out to third-party groups with virtually every decision we make, especially with decisions that have been difficult and complex and not always clear consensus," Bro said.
Supporters of over-the-counter sales of Plan B for months have alleged that political meddling played a role in the process.
Dr. Florence Houn, the FDA official who once oversaw the Plan B application, said a top agency official told her a 2004 decision to reject initially unrestricted over-the-counter sales of the drug was meant to "appease the administration's constituents," with approval only to come later, according to transcripts of a July 20 deposition she gave in connection with a lawsuit against the agency over Plan B.
"It's becoming clearer this was the strategy all along," said James Trussell, director of the Office of Population Research at Princeton University and a member of an FDA advisory panel that in 2003 overwhelmingly recommended that Plan B be sold over the counter.