Obama’s Blow to Reproductive Justice
by Adrienne Edwards | University of Pennsylvania
Last week, the Secretary of Health and Human Services voided the FDA’s decision to allow over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception for girls under 17. This comes amid continuing concern over the health risks that such a decision might pose, especially since the FDA previously proved that emergency contraception was safe for girls under 17. Because of a comparatively unprecedented move, though, Plan B will remain behind the counter for this segment of the population.
Critics make several arguments in favor of the Health Secretary’s decision, and President Obama publicly supported it, claiming that, as a father of two daughters, he would not want his children to be able to purchase birth control next to “bubble gum and batteries.” Other critics claimed that there might be health concerns with the emergency contraception for girls of such a young age. And naturally, there is always the argument that parents or doctors should be involved in all of the sexual decisions of teenagers.
Yet, this decision hurts young girls more so than it helps them. By politicizing sex and failing to trust teenagers to make responsible sexual choices, the Health Secretary and the President hurt reproductive justice.
It was strange of President Obama to assume that people would go to the store to pick up batteries and bubble gum, remember that they had unprotected sex a few hours ago, and nonchalantly pick up emergency contraception. Just like all other medications, over-the-counter emergency contraception would most likely be sold in the aisle with ibuprofen and cold medicine, away from the bubble gum and batteries. There is no reason to believe that emergency contraception would be an impromptu purchase because it was not behind the counter.
Much of the concern arises from the idea that the government should do something about all the reckless sex those crazy teenagers are having. However, Plan B does not encourage youth to engage in unprotected intercourse. Offering a means of protection does not encourage reckless activity and a concern for moral hazard does not justify total inaccessibility for a an age group that is extremely vulnerable.
The society we live in has already accepted that youth under the age of 17 have sex. We regularly have teenage pop stars in scantily clad clothing and shows like “16 and Pregnant” that depict teenage sexuality. If teenagers are having sex and society knows about it, we should offer them ways to protect themselves against adverse consequences. Forcing pregnancy as a “punishment” for having sex solves nothing, and teenage pregnancy is often not desirable for anyone involved in the situation. In the event that the primary method of contraception fails, teenagers should have a Plan B.
The FDA has already proven that Plan B is safe for 11-16 year-old girls, but the Health Secretary’s decision essentially makes it off-limits to girls under 17. Emergency contraception is designed for use 72 hours after the sexual encounter and is designed to interrupt ovulation and/or fertilization (not remove a fertilized egg, so not an abortion). The time it would take to get a prescription would nullify the effectiveness of the method.
Most alarmingly, keeping Plan B behind the counter especially affects cases of sexual abuse. If a young girl needs birth control at the age of 11 or 12, she may be the victim of the crime. While getting a prescription would alert the doctor and other adults to the abuse, it would not be fast enough to prevent a pregnancy. In even more unfortunate circumstances, getting a prescription means going to your family doctor, which could translate to telling your parents. If your parents are the one causing you harm, then requiring their consent to remedy the immediate effects of their sexual abuse exacerbates the problem. No victim should have to bear the perpetrator’s child or have her pregnancy display the abuse so the legal system confronts her accuser.
The most disheartening aspect of this is the lack of trust the government puts in the decisions of young girls. Putting Plan B behind the counter and requiring a prescription means that other adults have to approve this decision, suggesting we don’t trust 15 and 16 year-old girls to make this decision for themselves. 15 and 16 year olds are regularly entrusted with driver’s licenses, the care of other children, and other important decisions for their own lives, all of which can be way more deadly to themselves and other people than emergency contraception.
There are many more consequences of the Health Secretary’s unnecessary decision. Nevertheless, girls under the age of 17 should have as much access to emergency contraception as women over 17. The Obama administration should reconsider and protect the reproductive rights of girls across the country.Adrienne Edwards is a voices contributor for Next Gen Journal. She is currently studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania.