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12.09.11

Michael Tomasky: A Progressive Defense of the White House on Plan B

Kathleen Sibelius is getting flak for her Plan B decision. But Michael Tomasky defends the administration’s position because of the ethical issues raised by minors using the pill.

I get the reasons for liberal outrage at the Obama administration’s Plan B decision. But I can’t quite join in the indignation. I know that I am a man—a fact I’ve been aware of for some time—and so readers male and female can factor that in here as they wish. But it seems to me that to call this merely a case of politics cynically trumping science is way too dismissive of some concerns that parents with all kinds of political views might have about their teenage daughters buying this pill without their knowledge.

Much of the opposition to allowing underage girls to buy the pill over the counter amounts to straw-man arguments. There’s the line that taking the pill amounts to abortion. Watch this lurid ad by a right-to-life group and think about what sort of cacophony must be raging inside the mind that could even come up with such an egregious thing. Outside the realm of anti-abortion fanaticism, I don’t think most of us would equate the prevention of a pregnancy with the removal of an existing fetus. It’s called “emergency contraception” because it’s contraception, not abortion.

There’s also an argument about harmful effects on young girls of the pill’s heightened progesterone levels. I am far from being an expert on such matters, but unanimous view of the scientific community appears to be that the pill is safe for all females of child-bearing age, and that’s good enough for me.

Those are ideological issues, and ones that can be dismissed easily. But it seems to me that there is a fair issue here, and it has to do with parents having a right to know about and be involved in what their kids are up to. You simply don’t have to be a right-winger to have concerns about your 14- or 15-year-old daughter having easy access to such a pill.

That is not a political question per se. A parent’s view on that matter will be partially informed by politics, but only partially (and in some cases not at all, since lots of people have no political views to speak of). Parents’ opinions on this will be informed most of all by the parent-child relationship; by the parents’ views about sexuality and morality; by the parents’ feelings about their authority vis-a-vis their child’s autonomy. These areas might have a lot to do with a parent’s political views, but they might not. We all know people who are politically conservative but sexually libertine, or politically liberal and as chaste as Mother Teresa. In other words, this is less about appeasing the right than acknowledging reality in all its complications out there in the country, where many people probably have mixed feelings. I’d be fascinated to see some polling on this, and I expect we will soon.

In an ideal world, parents would rationally support the idea of their daughters having every means available to them to correct an error (or, obviously, to override a violation) that happened a day or two prior. But parents don’t always think rationally about these things. That makes these issues sensitive by definition, and it’s hardly illegitimate for a government to take such matters into consideration. I’d have had more respect for Kathleen Sibelius in this situation if, instead of that blather about 11-year-old girls not being able to follow instructions and take the pill properly, she’d just said: “Look, I respect the science, but this raises ethical and moral questions about what is the proper age for access to emergency contraception, in addition to the scientific ones. And that’s a public debate we ought to have more of before we pull this trigger.”

Such pills are generally available in other advanced countries, but there are some limits. In England, you have to be at least 16 to buy them. In Finland, 15. In Quebec, you have to consult a pharmacist. In Italy, it requires a doctor’s prescription.

So advanced societies haven’t yet made an across-the-board decision that all girls from 11 up should be able to buy this pill, and the United States always lags behind in these things, for all the reasons we know.

I wouldn’t doubt that the administration feared the development of a narrative here. Newt Gingrich in particular is very adept at that sort of thing: This election, he’d have announced with his usual fanfare, is a contest between traditional values and 13-year-old girls having no-consequences sex. It’s hard to know the extent to which that would have taken off.

But I doubt this was just politics. It was only in August that this same “anti-woman” administration issued new standards requiring insurance companies to cover all government-approved contraceptives for women, without co-payments or other fees. That will take effect, under the new health-care law, in January 2013 and should go a long way toward lowering the cost barriers to birth-control services for insured women. If the administration so lives in fear of political fallout from the cultural right, then why did it do that?

So maybe there was something more going on here. Maybe we should have a longer debate about the appropriate age at which this pill should become available. And maybe the right answer, an answer that much, but not all, of the advanced world has agreed on, is that there shouldn’t be a limit. The science says it’s safe, and it will undoubtedly prevent unwanted pregnancies—and, in an irony that the anti-abortionists never grasp, it will prevent abortions, too. But it’s now the job of advocates to make the culture catch up to the science.