Plan B, the emergency contraceptive rejected for over-the-counter sales by the FDA in May, has reapplied after limiting sales to those 16 years of age and older.

Concern about sales of the contraceptive to young teens was the FDA’s putative reason for rejecting Plan B, despite the overwhelming support for the medicine from FDA’s scientific panel. Many observers believe that the FDA’s director bowed to pressure from the anti-abortion movement and its allies in the Bush administration.

But Plan B is likely to slash the number of abortions. As the PI article reports,

“James Trussell, director of Princeton University’s Office of Population Research . . . has concluded that easy access to emergency contraception could cut by half the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions among U.S. women, ages 15 to 44.”

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  • Thus, ready and widespread access to Plan B might reduce the number of abortions in the United States more dramatically than even the anti-abortion movement’s Holy Grail: overturning Roe v Wade. Overturning Roe would allow states to ban abortion, but most of the large states probably would not do so. And many women in anti-abortion states would travel to pro-choice states to get abortions. The result probably would be far less than a 50 percent reduction in the abortion rate.

    Some few absolutists may believe that a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of you or me or any other human. Even for them, though, the calculus favors Plan B: Plan B does occasionally prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb, but it usually prevents ovulation or fertilization in the first place. So its “abortion” rate is a fraction of that for allowing unwanted pregnancies to occur: Roughly half of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. Again: a small fraction v. one half.

    I suspect that the real motive for opposition to Plan B is opposition to sex outside of marriage, especially among young people. This motive, I believe, is also part of the powerful mix that drives abortion politics more generally. The mainstream of society has spent 50 years coming to accept sex among consenting adults and coming to wink at sex among consenting teens. (The incidence of such sex was always fairly high: it just wasn’t accepted.) A strong traditionalist minority abhors this ethic as wanton, irresponsible, or sinful. Abortion is the moral flashpoint in this war: It is viewed by mainstream society as a lamentable and necessary alternative to unwanted births and unsafe, back-alley abortions. It is viewed by traditionalists as the despicable fulfillment-the epitome-of a society gone morally astray.

    For this reason, the arguments that abortion moderates like me make (that emergency contraception-and better contraception generally-is the best, quickest, most humane, and least expensive way to lower the abortion rate) usually fall on deaf ears among anti-abortion advocates.

    I hope they don’t fall on deaf ears among most people. Most people want abortion to be, in Bill Clinton’s words, “safe, legal, and rare.” Plan B will help make it so.