Morning-After Pills: Lots of Controversy But Few Actual Sales

Last Updated Aug 16, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

Abortion opponents condemned the FDA's decision to allow Watson Pharmaceutials (WPI) to launch a new "morning-after" pill, Ella, but don't get the impression that this is a big issue. It isn't. Sales numbers for morning-after pills show that this just isn't a significant business.

First, it's worth reminding ourselves of the difference between this FDA approval process and the one for Teva's Plan B, which occurred during the Bush Administration, in 2006. For Plan B, an FDA advisory panel was stacked with pro-life appointees who were not there for their scientific expertise but their political leanings. The Department of Health and Human Services then passed a rule allowing doctors to withhold the drug from rape victims if they wanted to follow their political or religious beliefs.

This time around, the FDA simply did its job: Looked at the science, safety and efficacy, and made a decision. Pro-lifers didn't like it:

"Ella is an abortion drug," Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, told the Washington Post. "It operates the same way as RU-486 -- the abortion drug. Many women may be comfortable taking a contraceptive but would object to taking an abortion drug."
Jeanne Monahan, a director at the Family Research Council, told the Daily News:
The difference between preventing and destroying life is enormous, and women have the right to know how this drug will act on their bodies and on their babies.
Ella and Plan B actually aren't abortion drugs. They both work the same way, by delaying egg production and by preventing eggs from implanting themselves in the uterus wall. But even if you believe that late-stage contraception and abortion are the same thing, the scale of the moral crime here is quite small: Teva's women's health unit, which makes Plan B, earned only $357 million in revenues last year. Plan B is only a portion of that unit, and sales of the pill are probably around $80 million a year. Teva has characterized sales of Plan B as weak in the last two quarters.

Drug companies usually like to see sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually on each drug they sell, because it can cost $800 million to develop each pill. So let the pro-lifers have their moral debate, but remember that the controversy over them is far more significant than the drugs themselves.

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Image by Flickr user dreams jung, CC.