A federal judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration this week to make the Plan B "morning-after" birth control pill available over the counter to girls aged 17. It was already available over the counter to women aged 18 and older. Associated Press Writer Larry Neumeister wrote up the story:
The Food and Drug Administration let politics cloud its judgment when it denied teenage girls over-the-counter access to the Plan B morning-after pill, a federal judge said Monday as he ordered the FDA to let 17-year-olds obtain the medication. . . .
The morning-after pill is a source of tension for social conservatives who held great sway in the Bush administration and who believe the pill is tantamount to abortion.
Guess how many times we read about social liberals in this story? They're featured, but they're not identified as liberals. Thrice we read of "social conservatives." But the story is framed as objective science lovers vs. ideologically driven conservatives.
Let's be clear. Both sides are arguing from a scientific perspective. To wit, the morning-after pill can work by either preventing ovulation or preventing implantation of the fertilized egg.
Science holds that a genetically distinct being is created at the moment of fertilization with the creation of an embryo. This is when human life begins. You can see examples of this from various medical and scientific texts here. Up until the past four or five decades, conception meant the union of sperm and ovum. Beginning at some point in the 1960s, we've seen a bit of a definition change. Now we have medical texts that describe conception as the moment when that genetically distinct human embryo implants in the lining of its mother's uterus. Some describe this -- and not the union of the sperm and ovum -- as the beginning of pregnancy.
For people who object to the destruction of unborn life, the important moment is fertilization. For people who think that the rights of the mother vastly outweigh any other considerations, these distinctions don't matter. And then you have people all along the spectrum inbetween. But the science doesn't change. What we have is a debate over the values and rights ascribed to the various lives involved.
There is a lot of politicking in this story, but it's important for reporters to understand the underlying science.
The story also fails to explain why the judge ordered that the drug be made available to 17-year-olds without a prescription but not other underage teenagers. Instead, we get more information that enforces the reporter's narrative that this is a debate between reasonable people and crazy fanatics:
Susan Wood resigned as the top FDA official for women's health in 2005 to protest agency delays in issuing a decision on the morning-after pill. Now a professor at George Washington University's school of public health, Wood said the ruling represents a vote of confidence in the FDA's scientific staff.
"What happened with Plan B demonstrated that the agency was off track, and was not being allowed to do its job properly," Wood said. "This is telling the FDA to move forward with a focus on good science."
But how does "good science" make the policy decision about what age is the proper cut-off for drug availability? What does "good science" have to say about a 17-year-old girl being able to take this drug without her parents' -- or her doctor's -- know how? Parents are still legally responsible for 17-year-olds, aren't they? To suggest that this is an issue where science -- and only science -- comes into play is anything but journalism.
The reporter then inserts a somewhat random quote from the "conservative" Family Research Council -- not, it should be noted, someone with the Bush-era FDA, not someone with legislative oversight on the matter, not a medical practitioner with a view in support of the FDA's policy. The quote adds little to the story and seems included solely so the reporter can have a claim of balance. Later we hear from the "(note the absence of any adjective)" Center for Reproductive Rights.
One of my biggest problems with the story was the failure to explain anything about why the judge only opened up the pill to 17-year-olds, particularly in light of this paragraph:
In February 2001, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals and 65 other organizations petitioned the FDA to make Plan B available over the counter to all, regardless of age. The FDA did not respond for five years, announcing in 2006 that the petition was denied.
So why can 17-year-olds have the pill but not 16-year-olds? 15-year-olds? 14-year-olds? 13-year-olds? 12-year-olds? Need I go on? If "good science" wants the pill available over the counter to anyone, regardless of age, why did the judge rule only that it be made available without a prescription to 17-year-olds?
Instead of learning the answer to that rather obvious question, we learn only that big, bad social conservatives wouldn't let science make all our decisions for us:
"Moreover, they were told that the White House had been involved in the decision on Plan B," [the judge] said.
"Today's ruling is a tremendous victory for all Americans who expect the government to safeguard public health," said Nancy Northup, president of the center.
I assume, although it is quite unclear, that the "center" is the Center for Reproductive Rights, mentioned above. Once again, there is no adjective to tell readers about Northup or the center's political leanings. But smart readers should know this one-sided labeling is an unfair journalism trick.
Now, certainly there is someone in Neumeister's universe who could balance out these quotes or provide any sort of nuance or context. Instead we just get a completely one-sided framing of a complex story. He also leaves to the very end any discussion of the actual science of what Plan B accomplishes -- if not prevention of ovulation, then preventing implantation of the fertilized egg. It might have helped to explain that significant detail to readers earlier on.