May 9, 2004
The President and Women
The arrival of an over-the-counter morning-after pill in American drugstores has been delayed by a disappointing, politically motivated decision by the Food and Drug Administration. Wider availability of the pill would make it easier to avert unwanted pregnancies and reduce the rate of abortions. But once again, the Bush administration seems determined to make things difficult for women in America. It's ironic, since President Bush has included more women in his innermost circle of advisers than any prior chief executive.
Condoleezza Rice, the administration's most prominent female presence, has presided as national security adviser while a wholesale assault has taken place on the reproductive rights and health of poor women overseas. That assault began on President Bush's first full day in office with his reimposition of the Reagan-era global "gag rule," badly hampering international family planning and the fight against sexually transmitted diseases.
On the domestic side, where Karen Hughes, Mr. Bush's former communications director, is still one of the most powerful forces, the record is equally dim. A new report by the National Council for Research on Women documents many small but important steps to manipulate information to the detriment of women and truth. Ms. Hughes herself made news in one recent interview when she appeared to suggest a parallel between supporters of abortion rights and terrorists. Asked on CNN whether abortion would be an election issue, Ms. Hughes said that she sensed that "after September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life." Driving home that connection, she added that "the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life."
That interview occurred as an estimated one million people were gathering peacefully in Washington to protest the administration's dismal record on reproductive freedom, medical privacy and other issues vital to women. The turnout did not deter the administration from stopping the progress of the morning-after pill, which can reduce the chance of pregnancy if taken within 72 hours after intercourse. Some social conservatives have claimed that the pill might encourage teenage promiscuity — an argument that appears to have influenced the F.D.A. more than the agency's own expert panel, which voted 23 to 4 to make the pill available over the counter, or the support of more than 70 medical and public health organizations.
In its decision, the F.D.A. said the pills could not be made available without a prescription until the manufacturer figured out a way to keep young girls from obtaining them, or provided additional evidence that teenagers 16 and under could understand the directions for their use. These barriers seem artificially high. There are many over-the-counter drugs that could be harmful if used in the wrong way, but were not prevented from coming to market by speculative concerns about how they might be abused by young consumers.
We appreciate Mr. Bush's willingness to create an administration with strong women. We just wish that translated into an administration that was strong on women's issues.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company