Just a year and a half ago, the Obama administration overruled the Food and Drug Administration’s ruling that would have made Plan B, the so-called "morning-after pill," available over the counter without age restriction or ID requirements. With loaded remarks about “bubble gum and batteries,” the president had decided that Plan B had to remain locked up, accessible only to those who can prove they are 17 or older.
Since then the administration’s decision-making has gone from bad to worse, continuing to allow politics to trump the health and well-being of young women. The events of this spring and the moves by the administration are truly mind-boggling.
First, in early April, women's-health advocates hailed a judge’s ruling that emergency contraception must be made available on store shelves within 30 days with no age or identification requirements. We thought – finally! – the decade-long battle over emergency contraception has come to a close, and now young women and their partners will have access to back-up birth control without unnecessary and burdensome restrictions.
Not so fast. Earlier this week, the FDA, in a downgrade of its own 2011 ruling, announced that Plan B was approved for those with ID who could prove they were 15 or older. Not so great.
Then last night, the Department of Justice announced that it would appeal the judge’s April decision on emergency contraception being available over the counter with no age restrictions.
Never mind the absurdity of the picture the White House paints of a child buying a $50 pregnancy-prevention medication from the drugstore, or that that same drugstore sells thousands of non-age-regulated chemicals and medicines which cost far less and pose far more danger to someone who uses them incorrectly. Never mind that science has shown that young people are capable of assessing when they need emergency contraception and using it appropriately (this according to the FDA’s own 2011 ruling and what its scientific staff have been recommending since 2004). And that the medical community supports making emergency contraception available with no age restriction.
Forgotten among the political machinations are the real victims of this shell game: young women who need emergency contraception, for whom there is now one more barrier to preventing unintended pregnancy.
Many teens do not have picture ID of any kind. Some look very young into their late teens and 20s. And some, like undocumented immigrants, cannot get ID. Should these young people be barred from preventing pregnancies they did not intend and do not want?
When a young person has experienced contraceptive failure or been sexually assaulted, the decisions they make in the next couple of days are crucial. When they decide that preventing pregnancy is a priority, they deserve support in that decision, not roadblocks created to protect politicians.
Part of me can understand that President Obama is uncomfortable with the idea that young teens may need emergency contraception. That worries me too. But rather than deny them access to a fully safe medication that could help prevent unintended pregnancy, perhaps we should be doubling down on comprehensive sex education — and expanding access to contraception in the first place — so that fewer of our daughters ever need Plan B at all. But for those young women who do, we still have a responsibility to make sure that any woman who needs emergency contraception has access to it when they need it.
Moms and dads, aunts and uncles: We can help by keeping on hand emergency contraception in the family medicine cabinet (where a worried teen can access it without being carded). And we can help by continuing to raise our voices in protest as the now decade-long farce surrounding this safe, essential medication moves into the next phase. Once again I find myself disappointed, angry, and scared about the direction we are going in this country when it comes to access to basic health care for women. But not hopeless. Because as I ate breakfast this morning with my daughters and thought of their friends and all the other young women who may one day be faced with an emergency, it reminded me of who and what we are fighting for.