In the last few years, the topics of sexuality, birth control, and abortion have been making headlines in the mainstream media. Fiercely debated, hotly contested, and often misrepresented, facts about women's health are so often obscured by moral judgment and urban legend. On July 11, the New York Times front page featured an article entitled "Ready Access to Plan B Pills in City Schools," written by Anemona Hartocollis and Michaelle Bond.
The piece reports on the availability of the Plan B One-Step pill, an emergency contraceptive, in New York City schools in the wake of the Obama administration’s allowance of over-the-counter availability of the pill to women of any age (well, sort of). While the article does not outright condemn the federal decision or New York City’s preexisting provision that students in high school can have access to emergency contraception, its ostensibly neutral tone on the issue is fraught with hints of shaming young women who utilize this option and the institutions that make it available.
While relaying important information about these policies, the article problematically plays into the media shock value of teenage sex and the possibility of schools condoning such activity. Since the piece highlights the rebellion of young women throughout, the authors distort the reality of why Plan B and other birth control methods need to be available in schools, and instead emphasize a desire to protect deviant young women. For example, the article briefly mentions the fact that the majority of research has demonstrated that emergency contraception does not increase rates of sexual activity, but taking up far more space in the piece are the opinions of others who believe that emergency contraception does increase “risky” sexual behavior, including a single teenage girl who thought teens at her school were having more sex since Plan B became available.
Hartocollis and Bond's article also features students who “deceived” their parents, have taken Plan B over five times, or had multiple abortions, playing on the fantasies of opponents of teenage use of birth control, rather than contextualizing their stories as part of a broad range of experience for teenagers. Instead of normalizing teenage sexuality and young people's needs for available and accessible protection against pregnancy and STI's, the authors seem to invite readers to condemn these young women. With a topic that evokes as much moral assessment and shaming as teenage sexuality does, depicting such distortion on the front page of the New York Times is downright irresponsible.
As long as this conversation excludes a concrete concern with equal access to women's health, the fight to make birth control and emergency contraception available and accessible to all women will continue to be an uphill battle. In contrast, the reproductive justice movement, which includes organizations such as Girls for Gender Equity and the NYCLU Teen Health Initiative, embodies a much more effective approach to the issue of birth control access by identifying reproductive rights as human rights which are often obstructed by social, economic, and legal forces. Instead of making evaluative judgments of the "choices" made by young women, this discourse focuses on the necessity of equal access to resources and avoids the pitfalls of mainstream discourses that demonize women, particularly those who are adolescent, of color, and low-income. If we want to move beyond a debate grounded in morality, we need to collectively adapt the language of reproductive justice in order to see these rights attained.
This article originally appeared at the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s blog