The FDA: Not All Going According to Plan

The idea to make Plan B, an emergency contraceptive, available without a prescription to women 18 and older was supposed to smooth Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach's way to becoming the permanent chief. But the proposed compromise (the original plan was to make the drug available to all ages) may have had the opposite effect. "It made me go whoa ," says Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the committee reviewing von Eschenbach's nomination. "The FDA needs a leader who will make decisions based on scientific evidence. That is still not happening."

Von Eschenbach, a urologist and family friend of President George W. Bush's, has a history of generating controversy. While director of the National Cancer Institute, he reportedly introduced prayer to committee meetings and announced a goal of eliminating death from cancer by 2015--an idea so far beyond the realities of cancer research that many scientists simply dismissed him. "People at the NCI feel like he was a disaster," says an FDA researcher who works closely with NCI and who asked not to be named because he fears repercussions. Supporters of von Eschenbach, a three-time cancer survivor who declined to be interviewed, view his leadership style more favorably. "He's a consensus builder," says Dr. Joseph Corriere Jr., a former colleague of von Eschenbach's at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. "Obviously, he has to take politics into consideration to get something done, but he always puts science first."

Critics, however, say politics should have no place in the FDA, which regulates a quarter of all products purchased by Americans. The confirmation is now on hold: Murray and Sen. Hillary Clinton are blocking a vote. Although Bush could appoint von Eschenbach during the Senate recess, the White House said last week it is holding out for Senate confirmation.