Commentary Contraception

A Teen to Obama on Emergency Contraception: Stop Patronizing Me

Hannah Weintraub

Why would the Obama administration support such restrictions, which not only put the health and lives of young women at risk, but also further disable young women from taking control of our sexuality?

I’m at that age when so many adults just don’t get my life. While I often use this complaint too liberally, I find that the Obama administration’s attempts to restrict access to emergency contraception on the basis of age fail to recognize the true challenges and realities of being a teenager. Telling teenagers to fork over photo identification before accessing emergency contraception means they simply don’t “get” us and our real lives.

While I’ve jokingly griped and groaned over the age limits on buying lottery tickets and drinking alcohol, these are parameters that, honestly, I can live with. More life threatening is the age restriction pushed by the Obama administration for emergency contraception. Unveiled in late April, the plan made emergency contraception available over-the-counter only for people ages 15 and up.

On Wednesday, the administration lost that battle, in part, when the Food and Drug Administration was ordered to immediately make two-dose emergency contraception available over-the-counter without an age restriction. The administration is continuing to appeal age restrictions for one-dose emergency contraception, like Plan B One-Step.

Why would the Obama administration support such restrictions, which not only put the health and lives of young women at risk, but also further disable young women from taking control of our sexuality with the empowerment and liberation that many of us wish for?

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Placing an age limit on emergency contraception is simply discrimination. For example, while the administration’s plan allows women age 15 and up to purchase emergency contraception, it says that a store clerk must first verify a woman’s age before she is allowed to buy the drug. For many but not all adults, proof of age is a non-issue if they have driver’s licenses or state-issued identification at the ready. But let’s be real: Many 15-year-olds, and for that matter women of all ages, do not have licenses, permits, or other forms of easily accessible government identification. In Maryland, where I live, teens can’t apply for a learner’s permit until they are 15 years and nine months old. If my own experience is any judge, I was late in getting my permit and then promptly lost it for a stretch of time. Under the rule the Obama administration wanted to impose, my mistake would require me to lug in a passport or a birth certificate to get completely safe and time-sensitive medicine. Digging through documents is not always practical when emergency contraception should be taken as soon as possible for maximum effectiveness.

The age restriction also fails to acknowledge that—spoiler alert—young people have sex. While only 13 percent of teens have had sex by age 15, that’s still more than one in ten teens who deserve the same protection and health-care services that women of other ages receive. If we continue to ignore the reality that young people can and will be sexual, we will have no choice but to contend with even more teens with children of their own.

Many young teenagers who have sex are painted by conservative political and religious rhetoric as misguided and troubled girls. But of the young women I know who had sex by age 15, most are happy teenagers who, just like many older adults, chose responsible partners and used appropriate birth control options. Sure, there are some 15-year-olds who have sex recklessly and irresponsibly, but aren’t there 45-year-olds who do the same?

These double standards highlight the sort of paternalistic government decisions that I am tired of. Emergency contraception age restrictions treat teens like we are either too dumb or too irresponsible to take care of our own bodies.

This disempowering trope is further reinforced by “abstinence is best” health classes that require women of a certain age to receive parental approval before accessing medically accurate information, and abortion laws that require parental intervention before accessing medically safe procedures. Our schools expect us to comprehend calculus and Shakespeare, yet reading the packaging on a box of pills or talking about sex in a mature, clinical way is too much for us to handle? Give me a break.

My teachers have always taught me that knowledge is power and that I should use all of the resources available to me. Fittingly, without adequate sex education and without appropriate access to birth control options, including emergency contraception, I don’t feel like I have the power to make the best and safest choices. While our schools and politicians focus so much attention on beefing up student’s math and reading skills to prepare us for the “real world,” many fail to give us the education and resources we need to maneuver in the very “real world” of sex and relationships. We are simply armed with a useless arsenal of flimsy sex education and restricted birth control options and somehow expected to just make it work.

The Obama administration fails to acknowledge that younger women are capable of making responsible decisions. This attitude only becomes more confusing when it is placed against the backdrop of coaches, parents, and teachers who are constantly pushing my peers and me to become leaders in our communities. It is baffling that when I was 12 years old parents allowed me to babysit their child, yet at an older age the government still thinks I am incapable of making responsible decisions regarding my own body.

The intent of the emergency contraception restrictions deserve even more scrutiny when examined in the context of other government action on youth safety issues. I don’t believe that the government is interested in the health of young women when flimsy governmental oversight places such few regulations on, for example, youth modeling, sometimes leading to sexual harassment and exploitation. When a young woman wants to protect her body, it is treated almost like a crime, but if an industry wants to capitalize on a young woman’s body—even if it risks a woman’s health—it is not only excused, its promoted.

No one should respect the Obama administration’s paternalistic and ageist attempts to restrict access to emergency contraception on the basis of age. This is a matter of life and death for teens. As a teen myself, I want to be able to go into relationships informed and with the tools I need to make healthy decisions. This should not be a big request. We all have the right to choose if and when we become parents—no matter our age.

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