By Elizabeth Limbach
In August of 2005, Dr. Susan Wood made a decision that would not only change her own life, but the entire nation’s awareness of women’s health issues. After years of knowing of the safety and effectiveness of the emergency contraception pill Plan B, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continued to delay the release of it as an over-the-counter drug. Sensing crooked business, Dr. Wood, the former director of the Office of Women’s Health at the FDA, quit in protest, lending the drug national attention and shining new light on the FDA’ s questionable business ethics.
Dr. Wood gave a special lecture at the College 9/10 Multipurpose Room Oct. 4 on further threats to women’s health in the current political climate, with an emphasis on Plan B and its struggle through the FDA.
"The decision [to delay Plan B] certainly had nothing to do with the science," Wood said, "And it had nothing to do with the way the FDA normally does business."
The makers of Plan B, a form of emergency contraception and not an abortifacient (method of abortion), first applied to the FDA for over-the-counter status in 2003, and were finally granted the status for women over the age of 18 in August of 2006. Although Plan B has been available by prescription since 1999, the use of high-dose birth control as an emergency contraceptive has been used for decades, says Wood. "But by having the product available over the counter we can begin to give women that second chance to prevent unintended pregnancy," Wood said.
Close to 1.5 million unintended pregnancies could be avoided because of Plan B, according to Planned Parenthood.
No matter how often it is said that one person can make a difference, it seems rare to hear of someone that actually has. Dr. Wood been dubbed a hero for women’s health, as many, including Beth Rees, program director for the UC Santa Cruz Women’s Center, believe that Dr. Wood’s resignation single-handedly brought women’s health issues to the forefront of the national consciousness.
"By being brave enough to take that public stand against [the FDA] she showed what one person can do," Rees said.
Dr. Wood sat down with City on a Hill Press before her lecture to discuss Plan B, her decision to resign, and her life since leaving the FDA. With white hair pulled back from a strikingly youthful face, Dr. Wood also spoke of the public’s growing skepticism of the government and its agencies.
"This is not the Iraq war, this is not that big of an issue," Wood explained. "But it’s enough of an issue that it rings alarm bells in peoples’ minds that something is going wrong at the FDA and it needs to be addressed, and addressed now."
Wood acknowledged the "whirlwind" of publicity that she and Plan B were swept up in following her resignation, and the notion that her actions ultimately led to the FDA’s delayed approval of the drug for over-the-counter status.
"I think part of that turnabout was because the story didn’t go away," Wood said. "It didn’t just drop into a black hole and disappear. It kept coming up in the media around the country and people were asking questions."
Although pleased with the progress in the drug’s acceptance, Dr. Wood emphasized that Plan B has been only partially released, and that the drug ought to be available to women of all ages.
"That age restriction is not based on science, medical evidence or any good reason," Wood said. "The FDA is still not working as it should. But we’ll take that [partial release] and keep pushing."
The numerous groups that organized Dr. Wood’s lecture felt that it was important to bring together women’s health groups, students, government, and community.
"It was a great event," Rees said. "We were able to bridge the Santa Cruz community and the happenings at UC Santa Cruz."
UCSC Pharmacist Diane Lamotte found Dr. Wood’s stop at the Santa Cruz campus significant as a way to spread awareness about the availability and effectiveness of Plan B. Lamotte, who said she distributed five Plan B packets in one hour this week at the Health Center, was surprised at how little students knew about the Plan B news.
"Fewer than half of the patients are aware of the changes [in the drug’s availability]," Lamotte said. "I thought it’d be bigger news in the sexually-active community." Lamotte saw Dr. Wood’s UCSC lecture as an important opportunity to inform the student population of their new rights to Plan B without prescription.
After the event, Santa Cruz Mayor Cynthia Matthews awarded Dr. Wood a customized little-league trophy with a triumphant Wonder Woman figurine on top delivering a packet of Plan B. On a more serious note, she celebrated the guest of honor’s impact on the Santa Cruz community by officially declaring Oct. 4 "Susan Wood Day."
The warm reception and official recognition Wood received represents only a small fraction of the attention she has gained nationally since she made the decision to "quietly resign" from her job. Although she says she expected her choice to prompt some attention in Washington and from women’s groups, the response from the general media and public was "stunning." The effect of her statement was better than she had ever imagined, and now she wants to use the attention to convince others that they have just as much power to make changes.
"It should have just been a drop in the bucket," Wood said. "But it inspired in people this sense that individuals working individually or collectively actually can make a difference in a time that is very frustrating to them."