The Next War

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War is brewing. And not with Iran or North Korea. It's brewing right here in Washington between progressive women's-rights and women's-health advocates and religious conservatives in the Bush administration's Food and Drug Administration hierarchy.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and three other female senators–Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican; Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat; and Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat–fired off a letter two days ago to FDA Commissioner Andrew C. von Eschenbach that urges him not to trim the budget of the FDA's Office of Women's Health. The bipartisan foursome told von Eschenbach:

"We are deeply concerned by reports that the Food and Drug Administration intends to withhold $1.2 million of funding allocated by Congress for the Office of Women's Health (OWH). If news of this reallocation is accurate, we urge you to provide any guidance and an explanation for this action. We strongly oppose any efforts to downgrade the OWH at FDA."

The dust-up erupted following media reports that the FDA plans to freeze spending in the Office of Women's Health, whose paltry budget is an annual $4 million. Already, $2.8 million has been spent or allocated this fiscal year. But the other $1.2 million would be frozen in retaliation, apparently, for the office's advocacy of over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive, Plan B. After a years-long battle, over-the-counter sales were approved last year, but over the monumental objections of the religious right. They complain its facile availability will lead to, what else, freer sex by unmarried Americans. Do they never tire of this theme?

This week, von Eschenbach bobbed and weaved in appearances before the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees with jurisdiction over his agency. He wouldn't answer members' questions about whether the freeze was taking place or not.

Murray told me, "If he takes this money out of the budget, [Congress] will just write it back in."

You go, girls (or ladies)!