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DON GONYEA, host:

President Bush's nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration finally got his chance to make his case before a Senate committee yesterday. But his fate is now wrapped up in a fight over whether to approve over-the-counter use of the morning-after birth control pill, as well as broader questions about the intersection of science and politics.

NPR's Julie Rovner has more.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

Not a single member of the Senate Health Committee questioned the qualifications of Andrew von Eschenbach to head the FDA, which regulates products accounting for a quarter of every dollar in the U.S. Von Eschenbach is the former head of the National Cancer Institute, a noted cancer surgeon as well as a cancer survivor. And he promised the committee that if confirmed, he would work to preserve FDA's reputation for assuring public health.

Mr. ANDREW VON ESCHENBACH (Nominee for Head of FDA): As a nation, we are blessed that because of our Food and Drug Administration, we go to bed each night not worrying about the safety of the food we eat or the effectiveness of the medicines we gave our grandchildren.

ROVNER: But several senators, including Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski, say that's not necessarily true anymore.

Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): FDA's in crisis. There is a crisis of morale, there is now a crisis of confidence in the reliability of FDA decisions. There's a crisis about are there the scientists operating under a gag rule, putting politics above science.

ROVNER: Exhibit A at the hearing was Plan B. That's the so-called Morning-After pill that can prevent most pregnancies if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. It's been more than three years since the drug's manufacturer asked to be allowed to sell Plan B without a prescription. While the FDA's own advisory committees and scientists have recommended non-prescription sales, some anti-abortion groups and those concerned about promoting sex among teenagers have urged the request be denied.

Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin says he sees only one explanation for the long delay.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): We all know what's going on here. It is a disregard of science for ideological concerns. How much have we seen that in this administration?

ROVNER: Von Eschenbach denied that his latest action on the application was based on anything other than public health considerations. In a letter to the company yesterday, he summoned officials to discuss raising the age for over-the-counter sales from 16 to 18, and to require the company to help enforce the age restrictions.

Mr. VON ESCHENBACH: I made this decision not on a political ideology, but on a medical ideology. No one told me what I should or could do. No one told me what decision I must or must not make.

ROVNER: Senators who have vowed to block a vote on von Eschenbach's nomination until there is a decision, however, say the issue is broader than just the fate of Plan B. New York Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton says even middle-age men with no daughters have reason for concern.

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I think the reason one should care is because once we start politicizing the FDA, there is no stopping. And from my perspective, it is essential that we draw a line, and we're drawing the line right here. You know, somebody could come in the future and say, you know, people need to start controlling their eating habits. So drugs and interventions, medical devices to deal with obesity, we shouldn't approve those. You know, it's immoral that people get obese.

ROVNER: A committee vote on the nomination isn't expected until the Senate return from its August recess, but by then President Bush may have installed von Eschenbach in the post on its own by using a recess appointment. If that happens, it's likely to touch off a fight that will make the arguments of the past three years look mild.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

GONYEA: You can find out how emergency contraception works at npr.org.

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