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Politics and the Plan B Appeal
Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux,

Days after President Obama spoke at Planned Parenthood, denouncing several state-level abortion restrictions and reasserting his support for the family planning organization, the White House is at loggerheads with groups advocating for women’s reproductive health after the Department of Justice announced that it will appeal Judge Edward R. Korman’s order to make emergency contraception legal for women and girls of all ages. The move came hours after the Food and Drug Administration approved over-the-counter sales of one specific morning-after pill – Plan B One-Step – for women age 15 and older. Previously, emergency contraception was only available without a prescription to women age 17 and older. Women also had to request the drugs from a pharmacist, rather than finding them in the family planning aisles.

The Department of Justice’s appeal will not affect the FDA’s ruling – rather, it seeks to overturn the judge’s much more expansive ruling, which eliminated all age restrictions for generic and name-brand emergency contraceptives. Judge Korman’s ruling declared that such restrictions were politically motivated, and that safety concerns – which bolstered the Obama administration’s decision to impose age restrictions on the drug in the first place – were unfounded. In December 2011, the FDA concluded that the pill is safe for over-the-counter use without a prescription.

The Obama administration’s move was met with a firestorm of protest from groups advocating for women’s reproductive health. Health concerns aside, however, our research clearly shows that contraception access for teenagers without parental permission is a highly fraught issue, even among Democrats. Indeed, the FDA’s choice to lower the age of access to 15 exposes a tipping point in Americans’ perspectives on contraceptive use for teens. A majority (52%) of Americans favor allowing methods of birth control to be generally available to teenagers age 16 or older without parental approval. When the age of access falls to 14, however, a majority (55%) of Americans oppose such availability.

Meanwhile, the political divisions on this issue show that by lowering the age of access to birth control without parental consent, the White House may be less concerned about inspiring the Republicans’ ire than avoiding criticism from within its own party. Nearly two-thirds (66%) of Democrats and a majority (55%) of independents favor birth control access without parental permission for 16-year-olds, compared to one-third (33%) of Republicans. Interestingly, however, when asked about 14-year-olds, Democrats’ and independents’ support falls to less than half (48% and 45%), while Republicans’ support (30%) remains essentially steady.

These findings show that the Department of Justice’s decision to appeal Judge Korman’s ruling, if it is indeed politically motivated, may have more to do with avoiding a potential backlash from Democratic voters than mollifying Republicans.