Saturday, December 10, 2011

Obama "daughter tests" young women out of sexual privacy and responsibility

A few months ago I wrote about Freakonomics author Steven Levitt's "daughter test" for legality. Levitt didn't invent the test; he just articulated it: "If I wouldn't want my daughter to do it, I wouldn't mind the government passing a law against it." The inanity and offensiveness of this standard should be plain on its face, but I carefully unpacked it anyway because this rule is applied consciously or unconsciously in the thinking of many otherwise thoughtful, non-authoritarian people. People who just want things to turn out best for their daughters.

Such, I have to assume, was in the mind of President Obama when he used his own daughters as justification for overruling a recent FDA decision to allow the sale of emergency contraception pill Plan B over the counter to women of all ages:
President Barack Obama is defending his administration’s decision to stop plans to allow the Plan B morning-after pill to move onto drugstore shelves next to condoms. 
Obama says as a father of two daughters, the government should “apply some common sense” to rules when it comes to over-the-counter medication. 
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, saying young girls shouldn’t be able to buy the pill on their own. 
Obama says Sebelius was concerned a 10- or 11-year-old could get the medication, which could have an adverse effect. Obama says “most parents would probably feel the same way.” For now, Plan B will stay behind pharmacy counters, available without a prescription only to those 17 and older who can prove their age.
So the FDA lacked "common sense" when they decided that there is no good reason to prohibit Plan B to women younger than that? Should we assume that none of them have daughters? I doubt it. More likely they refused to allow paternalism to affect their conclusions in light of the evidence that there is no legitimate health concern which could justify restricting the drug:
Emergency contraception is already available over the counter to women over 17; in response to a request from the drug’s manufacturer, the FDA researched safety and efficacy of OTC access for women under 17 and found that there is no reason not to lift the age limit. Studies found no adverse health effects with non-prescription use and that younger women were able to understand how to use the product, including, crucially, that it does not protect against sexually transmitted infections.
Here's how you take Plan B: as soon as possible after unprotected sex or contraceptive failure, take one pill. A second pill is not necessary. Do not take it more than 72 hours (three days) after unprotected sex or contraceptive failure. That's it. If a ten or eleven year old girl cannot grasp these instructions, we're in trouble.

And of all people who might need an emergency contraceptive most in the world, ten or eleven year girls who might be pregnant seem like the best candidates! But really, they are not the ones most likely to lose out on the opportunity to have this pill when they need it. That honor will more likely go to older girls who are sexually active but not yet 17. As Katha Politt writes in The Nation,

Barack Obama says that as the father of two daughters, he wants the government to “apply common sense” to rules about over the counter medications. Well, I too have a daughter, and so many many pro-choice women. Who died and made Barack Obama daddy in charge of teenage girls? Would he really rather that Sasha and Malia get pregnant rather than buy Plan B One-Step at CVS? And excuse me, Mr. President, thanks to your HHS, acquiring Plan B is prescription-only not just for 11-year-olds but for the 30 percent of teenage girls between 15 and 17 who are sexually active, and is a cumbersome process for all women, who have to ask a pharmacist for it and, as many news stories have reported, be subjected to fundamentalist harangues and objections. Apparently, it’s okay with you if Michelle is treated like a sixth-grader. I’m trying to think if there are any laws or regulations affecting only men in which unfounded fears about middle-school boys deny all men normal adult privileges. Needless to say, no one suggests that underage boys get a prescription if they want to use condoms, or that grown men have to ask the pharmacist for them and maybe get a lecture about the evils of birth control and promiscuity.
This is politics. Pure politics.
It's hard to disagree. If Obama doesn't want to keep Plan B out of the hands of young women because he thinks they don't have a right to sexual privacy and the ability to make their own reproductive decisions, his administration is certainly catering to people who do.

Wait a minute-- a right to sexual privacy? Who says teenage girls should have that? Amanda Marcotte, very convincingly:
The only reason possible that condoms don't come up is pure sexism; Plan B provokes anxiety about female sexuality, and the stereotypical (though not actual) image of who has condoms on their person in high school is male. Fill in jokes about the condom-shaped wear on the leather wallet, etc.  
But most of all, the flaw is in assuming that there's intrinsic value to outing a girl who is having sex to her parents, with the exception of abuse. But if you think about this argument, it assumes a lot that is not proved by a long shot. So, let's walk through the standard, non-abuse discovery of sexual activity of a 15- or 16-year-old, which are the ages when the percentages of kids having sex grows rapidly. (Contrary to hysterical assumptions, younger teenagers just aren't doing it that much.) People who are making the parental argument are literally assuming that a tearful girl comes forward to her parents and confesses shamefacedly that she's been having sex with her boyfriend. Yelling, crying, and recriminations ensue. She gets her Plan B, but is perhaps grounded and her parents are very disappointed in her. They may or may not have a conversation about birth control going forward, but at every point in this process, her choice to have sex is considered less than ideal. 
What does this solve? How does this standard American situation improve life for anyone involved?  
It doesn't. The girl is highly unlikely to give up having sex, though now she may decide to be sneakier about it. She'll probably be defiant and feel her parents don't understand her; she will be right to think this. She may, correctly, see them as hypocrites, because they probably had sex as teenagers (that being what teenagers do), and it worked out well for them, but now they're going to punish her for the same. She's going to start counting the days when she can get out of the house with these unreasonable people and have a place of her own, where she can do what she wants. Meanwhile, the parents also have a worse go of it. If they really have absorbed prudish attitudes, they may think less of their daughter, even though she hasn't actually done anything wrong. Even if they are just typical American hypocrites who remember their own sexual debuts fondly while enacting hostility towards their daughter in the same situation, they're going to feel weird and out of sorts. They'll always feel that there may be something else they should be doing to stop the sexual activity. They may worry that they failed somehow. They may want to offer advice, but it's going to be filtered through the assumption that youthful sex is bad, and so it's probably not going to be good advice.  
Kids really do need their privacy, for the same reason that adults do. Even though I'm a grown ass adult and there's no shame or recriminations there, I don't talk about my sex life with my mom as a general rule. Because there's no value in it. Everyone's just happier minding their own damn business. I personally think there's a lot of value in letting teenagers spend their high school years gradually gaining rights and responsibilities---including sexual privacy rights and responsibilities---instead of simply dumping them into adulthood at 18 and expecting them not to get overwhelmed.
In this case, the right is a responsibility. Opponents of reproductive choice complain that it allows women to escape the consequences of their actions. If this really isn't just code for inflicting pregnancy and childbirth as punishment, then it needs to be acknowledged that a young woman who is sexually active and either makes a mistake or experiences an accident (or both) and wants to take Plan B is being responsible. She realizes that something potentially very bad has happened and is facing the consequence of needing to do something about it. And Obama's administration does not want her to-- at least, not on her own. That may seem like "common sense" to him, but playing Father Knows Best to the entire country makes unwilling daughters of us all.

1 comment:

  1. The morning after pill generally works in three ways. First, by preventing the ovaries from releasing an egg. Second, by altering the outer covering of the egg that a sperm cannot penetrate it and third by altering the lining of a womb so that a fertilized egg cannot attach to the uterus.


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