Once again, stunned women found themselves to be the sacrificial lambs to the slaughter after the shocking decision by the Obama administration to restrict the sale of the morning-after pill to minors in the U.S., overriding an earlier recommendation by the Food and Drug Administration to increase access. Although Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services officially made the decision, Obama’s reasoning as to why he didn’t interfere called attention to his own role as father to two young daughters.
Around the blogosphere, outraged progressives are citing the inherent paternalism underpinning the President’s decision as largely motivated by reelection politics. “What should have been a routine decision based on sound scientific and medical evidence just got hijacked by politics – again,” Jessica Arons, director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at American Progress, writes in a guest blog for ThinkProgress.
And the decision isn’t a particularly astute one, as Scott Lemieux correctly asserts over at The American Prospect, characterizing the decision as “a disgrace” inconsistent with what attracts voters to the Democratic party in the first place. “It’s awful on the merits, and politically involves attacking a core constituency of the Democratic Party for no obvious benefit,” he writes. “Overriding professional FDA scientists in order to advance an agenda hostile to reproductive freedom and the equality of women is not what most Democrats believed they were voting for.”
No, this is certainly not the hope that scores of previously ignored young constituents had voted in, but it’s understandable why Obama erroneously believe such a decision is the perfect vehicle with which to mobilize the undecided-but-leaning-conservative vote in the months building up to the grand finale of Obama’s reelection campaign push.
Like so many other issues in the status quo that are hotly debated over the scape of women’s bodies, this one is grounded in paternalism, the idea that parents have a right to know that not only are their progeny (aw, who are we kidding—their daughters) are having sex, but if they get pregnant as a result.
Irin Carmon expands on this idea, arguing that teen sex has always occupied a sacred place in the Conservative anti-woman agenda because early strategists recognized what a powerful voting bloc parents could be when faced with the unacceptable reality that their daughters can and will have sex. This awareness is amplified whenever national headlines circulate putting young women’s sexuality front and center, even if reports of such behavior are largely exaggerated, if they exist at all (see: rainbow parties) and played out again just days after the Plan B debacle, when ABC News ran with a completely bogus, overblown story that risky group sex is increasing among teens.
It’s worth noting that the way we conceptualize young women having sex is problematic. Although more optimistic critics might insist the goal of the administration is to encourage young women to talk to their parents about sex, it’s worth pointing out that the administrative focus continues to be on “10-year-old girls.” It’s a subtle, but revealing move, as 10-year-old girls cannot emotionally or legally consent to sex in the first place; they can, however, continue to purchase other over-the-counter medications with even more severe side effects than those known to be associated with Plan B. Ultimately, this move is a counterproductive one, leaving young women with fewer reasons to disclose their sexual activity to their parents.
Taken a step further, it’s a decisive move to question Plan B’s necessity. When Obama vocalized his support for Sebelius’ decision, he did so by arguing that Plan B should not be purchasable “alongside bubblegum or batteries,” not only conjuring up an image of a female form that cannot have sex but subtly sending the message that Plan B (much like the sexuality of women as a whole) is nothing more than an unnecessary impulse purchase.
But there’s nothing unnecessary about accessing contraception. Actual figures are hard to pin down, but some experts estimate that up to 47 percent of all unplanned pregnancies involve no contraception. Although Texas is so far the only state to openly declare “a war on birth control,” the country as a whole has taken a gigantic step back, defunding programs and slashing budgets designed to increase access to pregnancy and communicable-disease prevention. Obama also cautioned stunned White House Press Corp reporters that it’s important to “use common sense” with regards to what is dispensed over-the-counter. But given that Plan B is most effective when administered 72 hours of sexual intercourse, it’s a head scratcher to figure out how requiring a prescription is acting with common sense of any kind, even in a meta-political sense.
The administration’s double-cross might be temporarily appeasing to Conservatives hell-bent on controlling the sex lives of their daughters, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory. By preventing young women from emergency contraception, the administration is most certainly going to facilitate an increase in abortions, particularly among women who belong to communities of color, who are less likely to have access to medical care to obtain a prescription for Plan B in the first place.
Make no mistake: with their decision to keep Plan B stocked behind the pharmacists’ counter, the administration is absolutely limiting access to Plan B for all women, regardless of their age. Women over 17 will not have to produce a prescription, but they will have to prove their age, subjecting them to a major invasion of privacy that barely passes muster for anything other than backdoor slut-shaming in order to obtain emergency contraception.
Especially with the growing support of “pharmacists’ conscience rights,” legal jargon which allows pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions based on their individual moral code. Though most states which support “conscience rights” require pharmacists to offer referrals to other places where those in need can access it, not all do, potentially creating a labyrinth of retail bureaucracy and time-delays undermining a woman’s reproductive autonomy.
Obama would do well to remember that the groups being most decisively impacted by this decision make up the key demographics that elected him three years ago (interestingly, just a year after Plan B first became widely available in the United States) and have a long history of being stepped on. When the line between Democrat and Republican begins to blur in this fashion so that we’re oppressed and devalued regardless of which way the wind blows, we lose a lot of the impetus to stay where we are.