Commentary Contraception

Restricting Plan B Is Bad Politics

Amanda Marcotte

Kathleen Sebelius clearly upheld restrictions on emergency contraception as a naked political move, but it wasn't even smart politics. Young women, a big voting bloc for Democrats, are insulted and will likely be demoralized by this decision. 

See all our coverage of the Administration’s 2011 Emergency Contraception Reversal here.

In March 2009, Barack Obama signed a memo specifically directing the heads of executive departments and agencies to value scientific integrity in their decision-making. To quote the first line of the memo:

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

By any reasonable measure, Kathleen Sebelius defied this memo with her unprecedented overruling of the FDA’s science-driven process that led to the conclusion that Plan B should be sold over the counter with no age limits. But not only is she not being disciplined by the White House for doing so, she was openly supported by Barack Obama, who claimed that it was “common sense”. To make the whole thing even more ludicrous, the President openly invoked a red herring, scaring Americans with the vanishingly small number of pre-teens who are sexually active, instead of addressing the actual 15- and 16-year-olds who would make up the vast majority of new users of OTC Plan B.

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As has been thoroughly covered at Rewire, the consensus is that this move was strictly political. The Obama administration is pandering to middle-of-the-road voters and even some liberals who believe that teenage girls should be chaste, and should face serious consequences if they decide to have sex against their parents’ wishes. (There is no corresponding concern about boys, which is why there’s no similar debate going on about OTC sales of condoms.) The administration likely sees teenage girls as an ideal sacrificial lamb to pander for votes, since the 16-and-under set won’t be able to vote in November 2012. You can see how easily they came to this conclusion. But that it was a nakedly political decision doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good decision. An entire group of potential voters was forgotten in this calculation: young women that are old enough to vote, who tend to be sensitive to reproductive rights issues and who the Democrats need to get to the polls in large numbers in order to win.

But don’t take my word for it. David Dayen at Firedoglake quoted respected and non-ideological pollster Celinda Lake on the issue:

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said she could “not even remotely” understand the political calculus of the decision, saying it “alienates the base, causes conflict with women in the base, [is] bad for key groups of women like younger women and unmarried women, and doesn’t win the swing independent women.”

Since the ruling is about teenagers, why would this alienate young women? Well, there’s a number of reasons that the administration should have considered before symbolically spitting in the face of this important voting bloc.

1) The ruling may be about teenagers, but it affects all sexually active women of reproductive age. If the FDA had been allowed to stand by its ruling on Plan B, the drug would have come out from behind the pharmacist’s counter and would sit on the shelves next to condoms and aspirin. This makes it much easier to get for reasons that these cute bunnies are happy to explain:

Tell the FDA to Act on Emergency Contraception from Center for Reproductive Rights on Vimeo.

This would add the number of stores that could stock it, as well, and it would also mean that you could buy it at 24-hour drugstores that don’t have 24-hour pharmacies. Having to endure the paternalistic process of buying Plan B is something young women will now blame on Obama, with good reason.

2) Young women are more likely to empathize with teenagers in need than parents who want excessive control of their daughters. The way some people are carrying on about the supposed horrors of teen sex (most of which is between age-appropriate, consenting partners), you would think that most people have no recollection of what it was like to be a teenager. But young women, as a group, certainly do remember. Just like now, about half of us were having sex by the time we were 17, and mostly we didn’t involve our parents in our decision to become sexually active. We may look at teenagers and think they look like babies, but we still remember that when we were their age, we were smart and responsible enough to drive a car, fill out college applications, go to parties unchaperoned, baby-sit actual children, and manipulate new technologies better than our parents usually could. We know we were perfectly capable of taking a simple, one-dose medication if we had unprotected sex or if a condom broke. We also remember keenly the terror that the very idea of an unintended pregnancy strikes in the hearts of high-schoolers, and our heart goes out to girls who have to endure that fear simply to placate their paranoid elders who have watched too many TV shows about “sexting”. Insulting our younger sisters insults us, and revises our memories of ourselves, making us seem stupider and less mature than we actually were.

3) Young women know a double standard when they see one. Condoms are and, for our purposes, have always been available over the counter with no age restrictions, despite the less than 1 percent of people who have latex allergies (similar to the less than 1 percent of 11-year-olds having sex). If you examine the arguments and the statistics carefully, it’s clear that the objections to Plan B have nothing to do with health and safety, and that it’s only a controversial drug because, unlike condoms, women can take Plan B without a man’s cooperation. It all goes back to female sexuality, and the continued widespread fear and loathing of it. Young women know better than anyone how deeply unfair that is. They’re the ones who most have to endure the sting of words like “slut”, while the men they sleep with endure no such shaming. They know that if they get pregnant, people will insinuate that they’re the ones who failed, not their partners. They know that if they get an abortion, they’re the ones who will be yelled at by protesters and made to endure harassing state regulations like mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods. They know that if they have a baby outside of marriage, they’ll be the ones shamed for being single mothers, but they also know that if they do get married, they’ll be accused of getting pregnant to “trap” a man. They live in a world that treats them shabbily for being sexual, and they will see clearly how this Plan B decision fits into the larger pattern.

Why did Obama simply overlook young women, even though it’s a group he can’t win re-election without? My theory is that the Democrats are thinking like movie producers. The assumption in the movie industry is that men pick what movies will be seen and women simply tag along, and it looks like Democrats are the same way. Many women can tell you stories of being shamed for being a “single issue voter” when they make reproductive rights a priority, even though people who are motivated to vote based on a single issue like tax policy or a vague promise of “jobs” don’t get slurred with that word. Just like in work, home, school, and church, women are viewed as people who will show up and work hard just because it’s what has to be done, and men are viewed as the ones who you really have to fire up. Because of this, we’re easy to ignore. But as the outcry against the Plan B decision shows, maybe we’re finally getting sick of playing the role of the people who show up and work hard, and get nary a word of thanks for our efforts. 

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