WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama defended his top health official Thursday after she barred an emergency contraception pill from being sold over the counter to young teenagers without a prescription.
The decision, which saw one government secretary overrule another, was criticized by women's rights advocates as a "stunning betrayal" but delighted conservatives.
"As the father of two daughters. I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine," Obama said.
The president said that he had no role in the decision, which has stoked a political furor, but supported the reasoning of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
"The reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old should be able -- alongside bubble gum or batteries (in a drugstore)... to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect," Obama said.
"For women, for those over 17, this continues to be something that you can go in and purchase from a drugstore."
At issue was a drug called Plan B One-Step, made by Pennsylvania-based Teva Pharmaceuticals, which had petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration to make it available on drugstore shelves to anyone over 12. Some women's groups had pressed for the drug to be available to women and girls of all ages.
The pill can reduce the chance of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. It is currently available by prescription only to people under 17 in the United States.
Those over 17 can ask for it at a pharmacy counter without a doctor's prescription, so long as they can prove their age.
An FDA division that monitors drugs and reviews new applications, the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, supported wider access for the morning-after pill, according to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
However, Sebelius disagreed with the FDA decision, and invoked her authority to block the supplement for non-prescription use for girls under 17.
That meant the drug's status would remain unchanged -- available without a prescription to women 17 and older and by prescription only for younger girls.
"Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was right," said Jeanne Monahan, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a well-known conservative group in the United States.
The National Organization for Women called the move "a stunning betrayal of women."
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