The Debate Over Plan B

Did Religion Play Role In An FDA Decision?

This story originally aired on Nov. 27, 2005.

Did the Bush White House pressure the Food and Drug Administration to block the "Morning After Pill," known as Plan B, from being sold over-the-counter at your local drug store? That question is the focus of a hearing in federal court on June 13, where birth control advocates have sued the FDA to make the drug available without a prescription.

Millions of women have used Plan B as an emergency contraceptive to prevent a pregnancy in situations like a condom break or a rape. Right now, it's only available by prescription, but because it must be taken within 72 hours, the drug's manufacturer asked FDA for permission to sell Plan B over-the-counter.

That was three years ago. And, even though the drug is considered totally safe, the FDA has repeatedly postponed a decision, including taking no action since 60 Minutes aired this story in the Fall of 2005.

Plan B's problems began when it was targeted by anti-abortion-rights groups and became part of a wider debate over whether religious beliefs are encroaching on scientific decision-making.

Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.

Until last August, Dr. Susan Wood headed the FDA's Office of Women's Health and was one of the scientists inside the agency arguing that Plan B should be available without a prescription. "If it's safe, and it is, and effective, it's more effective the quicker you have it. This is why it needs to be over-the-counter," she says.

"If you need it on Saturday morning, Monday morning is too late. Getting to a physician to get a prescription, getting that prescription to a pharmacy and getting it filled takes time, as we all know. Then what are you going to do?" says Wood.

That's a question a woman named Evelyn faced in 2004, when she was raped at a New York nightclub.

Evelyn, 22 at the time, was rushed to St. Vincent's hospital, the nearest emergency room.

She says the hospital did not offer her an emergency contraceptive.

"It was something that they were supposed to offer," says Evelyn's mother, Sandi. "In the situation as my daughter's, as Evelyn's situation, they were supposed to offer, you know, and let the person make the decision as to whether or not they wanted it. I didn't know that it was optional."

Sandi says she knew about a New York law that says all hospitals must offer rape victims emergency contraception like Plan B.

Sandi called the nurse who had treated Evelyn at St. Vincent's. "I said, 'Why did you not give it to her?' And she very rudely said to me, 'Well, we're a Catholic hospital. We don't do birth control.' At which point, I told them what they could do with being a Catholic hospital and their views on birth control — I'd rather not say that on the air," she recalls. "I was absolutely livid."

Because of Evelyn's case, St. Vincent's is under investigation by the state of New York. The hospital told 60 Minutes it is now complying with the law.

Evelyn finally got a prescription for Plan B, and took it 10 hours after the rape. Had she not gotten Plan B and had gotten pregnant, Evelyn says she would have had an abortion. "I'm glad that that didn't have to happen, I never had to experience that," she says.

The Catholic Church opposes Plan B not just because it's birth control, but because it considers use of Plan B to be, in Cardinal Egan of New York's words, "a chemical abortion."