NBC and CBS Frame 'Morning-After' Pill Decision as 'Politics' vs. 'Science'

At the top of Wednesday's NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams fretted: "The Obama administration blocks a plan to make the 'morning-after' pill more easily available to young girls. Is this about medicine, politics or something else?" Moments later, he proclaimed: "We begin tonight with this surprise decision that takes us right to the intersection of medicine, science and politics."

The CBS Evening News also lead with the decision as anchor Scott Pelley hyped: "No White House has ever overruled a safety recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration, but it happened today." In the report that followed, correspondent Wyatt Andrews announced that by overruling the FDA, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, "stunned many public health proponents."

Both CBS and NBC cited the same "proponent," former FDA assistant commissioner Susan Wood. In the Evening News report, she declared: "I am flabbergasted." On Nightly News, she lamented: "I had expected it to be a better day for good news for women and access to emergency contraception and this has been a very disappointing day."

In all of the coverage, only one parent was actually cited. In the NBC report, an unidentified mother expressed her hope that her daughter would consult with her before going on the pill but then equivocated: "I don't think she needs a prescription, it's her body." Neither network acknowledged that the idea of providing contraception to young girls was not a matter of "science," but rather parental values.

NBC correspondent Anne Thompson scolded the Obama administration for the decision: "Two years ago, the President pledged scientific integrity in his administration....Today, those who applauded him then say Sebelius ignored studies showing even the youngest women can understand Plan B."

CBS's Andrews similarly lectured: "White House officials say this was not a political decision, and President Obama has said medicine should be based on science. But, Scott, this is a case were the scientists at the FDA were reversed by their politically appointed boss."

On Thursday's Today, NBC's liberal chief medical editor Nancy Snyderman shared her thoughts on the decision: "I see this not as a science move but as a political move and there is going to be a big brouhaha between scientists and politicians in Washington." Co-host Ann Curry added: "Throwing down the gauntlet." Snyderman replied: "Yes...A move to the right."

On the Early Show, Andrews repeated his report on the issue, after which he concluded to co-host Erica Hill: "...if you take aside all moral judgments here, this standard has never been applied, never ever, to a drug that the FDA has ruled is safe to sell over-the-counter."

As for those "moral judgements," Andrews noted such objections in his Evening News report: "Even though the drug prevents conception and is not an abortion drug, anti-abortion rights groups argue it does stop life." NBC ignored those objections.

ABC only featured a single news brief about the decision on Thursday's Good Morning America, with news anchor Josh Elliot observing that Sebelius had "overruled her own experts at the FDA by refusing to allow emergency contraceptives to be sold over-the-counter to younger teens." He added, "the decision helps avoid an election year debate over parental control and contraception."


Here is a full transcript of Thompson's December 7 Nightly News report:

7:00PM ET TEASE:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: On the broadcast tonight, prescription change. The Obama administration blocks a plan to make the "morning-after" pill more easily available to young girls. Is this about medicine, politics or something else?

7:01PM ET SEGMENT:

WILLIAMS: We begin here tonight with a big story, but one that could not be a more personal topic, especially among parents of young teenagers. It's about Plan B, sometimes called the "morning-after" contraceptive pill, and how close this country came today to allowing it to be freely sold over-the-counter on demand without prescription.

It looked like a done deal, in fact, until the Obama administration today did what no administration has ever done. It overruled a decision by its own FDA that would have made emergency contraception available without prescription, and that would include girls 16 and under. We begin tonight with this surprise decision that takes us right to the intersection of medicine, science and politics. Here is NBC's Anne Thompson.

ANNE THOMPSON: The secret life of teenagers caught in the crossfire of politics and science. A day after accompanying President Obama to Kansas, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took the unprecedented step of overruling the Food and Drug Administration. She maintained the status quo on Plan B, the "morning-after" pill, available to women 16 years old and younger only if they have a prescription.

SUSAN WOOD [FORMER FDA ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER]: I had expected it to be a better day for good news for women and access to emergency contraception and this has been a very disappointing day.

THOMPSON: The FDA found "adequate and reasonable, well-supported and science-based evidence" to allow Plan B to be sold over-the-counter to females of child-bearing age. But Sebelius argued the data didn't show girls as young as 11 would understand how to use the pill, writing, "There are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age." Two years ago, the President pledged scientific integrity in his administration.

BARACK OBAMA: It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda.

THOMPSON: Today, those who applauded him then say Sebelius ignored studies showing even the youngest women can understand Plan B.

CYNTHIA PEARSON: There's very good research on that. The Secretary's statement, nicely as it's written, is just really a cover for what I believe was a political decision.

THOMPSON: An administration official denies politics played a role. Those usually critical of this administration praised the decision.

JEANNE MONAHAN [FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL]: This administration has promised a commitment to science and transparency, and I'm grateful, I think today they acted in that way.

THOMPSON: For this mother of a teenage daughter, it is a personal issue.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I would hope that she would come and tell me, you know, before, after, whatever. I don't care. But I would want her to say something. But I don't think she needs a prescription, it's her body.

THOMPSON: As the government holds the line on this aspect of teenage life. Anne Thompson, NBC News, New York.

Here is a full transcript of Andrews' December 7 Evening News report:

6:30PM ET TEASE:

SCOTT PELLEY: Tonight, a surprise decision from the Obama administration. Young teenagers will not be allowed to the buy the "morning-after" pill without a prescription. Wyatt Andrews on what's behind the decision.

6:31PM ET SEGMENT:

PELLEY: No White House has ever overruled a safety recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration, but it happened today. The question was whether the "morning-after" pill, an emergency contraceptive, should be available over-the-counter to girls 16 and under. Today, the FDA was ready to say yes, but the President's secretary of Health and Human Services said no. Wyatt Andrews has our story.

WYATT ANDREWS: For five years, Plan B, the emergency contraception drug, has only been sold without a prescription to women 17 and older. The issue is, should that be changed? And the drug made available with no prescription to younger girls. When the FDA looked at safety studies, it said yes. But it was directly overruled by Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Her denial stunned many public health proponents.

SUSAN WOOD: I am flabbergasted.

ANDREWS: Susan Wood, a former FDA official, says women need over-the-counter access because Plan B prevents pregnancy only if taken quickly.

WOOD: So, having any kind of barrier means perhaps we wait a day. Perhaps we wait a few days. And by then, the product no longer can help prevent unintended pregnancy.

ANDREWS: What made the denial so unusual was the level of public disagreement. Secretary Sebelius said she was protecting teenaged girls, some of whom reached child bearing age at 11 years old, and the evidence, she said, did not show "...that those who [might] use this medicine can understand the [warning] label..."

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg directly contradicted that, citing studies that "...adolescent females understood the product was not for routine use..." At Grubs Pharmacy in Washington, pharmacist Yvette Fulgueras agreed the drug should not be available to younger teens, saying they need to know Plan B's side effects, starting with nausea.

YVETTE FULGUERAS: I do believe it should be something you should consult with a health professional.

ANDREWS: But Plan B's approval has always been tinged with politics. Even though the drug prevents conception and is not an abortion drug, anti-abortion rights groups argue it does stop life. White House officials say this was not a political decision, and President Obama has said medicine should be based on science. But, Scott, this is a case were the scientists at the FDA were reversed by their politically appointed boss.

PELLEY: Wyatt, thank you very much.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC