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Plan B, and politics of parenthood

Plan B is also known as the “morning-after pill.”The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl/AFP

To advocates of universal access to emergency contraception, President Obama’s resistance to the cause is a sign of cowardice.

It’s “ The Politics of Prude,” according to a recent Slate article, in which writer Emily Bazelon argues that a federal court ruling calling for the FDA to lift age and sale restrictions on Plan B “exposes the hypocrisy of the Obama administration — its sacrifice of science to political expediency.”

This argument is rooted in a two-pronged theory. First, that the drug is safe and therefore should be available to anyone who wants it; and second, that the administration’s opposition to unfettered access amounts to reelection pandering to crazy moralists who believe sex, teenagers, and the morning after pill are a bad combo.


Medical researchers say it’s safe if used properly.

Yet the political calculus isn’t as simple as it looks. On one hand, Plan B opponents and proponents break down along the usual ideological lines. Antiabortion advocates oppose Plan B, and women’s health advocacy groups support the broadest possible access.

But there is an in-between: pro-choice people who still feel queasy about girls, 16 and under, making their way to the local pharmacy to buy the morning-after pill, no prescription or parental notification required. Their daughters still need signed permission slips for school activities, and can’t legally buy alcohol. But under this court ruling, a drug that prevents pregnancy after unprotected sex would be available, not far from the lip gloss.

As the Boston Herald’s Margery Eagan wrote, “So my head gets it, in real world, 2013, why there’s more good than bad in Plan B; why, even we need it. But I don’t like it, or that need, one bit.”

Neither do I. But also I wonder why any parent — including Obama — must accept the premise of more good than bad as the starting point of Plan B discussion for girls 16 and under. Maybe it’s better than abortion or middle-school motherhood. But it’s not better than abstinence, or, in lieu of no sex, at the very least, protected sex.


The president has two daughters, Sasha, 11, and Malia, 14. He is at the point of life where this may be more personal than political.

Instead of representing the politics of prude, maybe he represents the politics of parenthood, in which mothers and fathers have the right to challenge the idea of sex between middle-school girls and boys. Because they know that once their children have sex, pregnancy is a possible outcome and, with it, the need for Plan B. No parent wants that for their children.

As summarized in Slate, Plan B was approved as a prescription drug in 1999. Lawyers filed a petition to sell the drug over the counter, without a prescription, and an FDA advisory panel agreed with the move to broaden access. However, during the early years of the Bush administration, FDA officials refused to grant approval. In 2006, the FDA allowed over-the-counter sales for women 18 and older, but kept the drug prescription-only for girls 17 and younger.

In 2011, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, blocked an effort by the FDA to make the pill universally available. In what was viewed as preelection positioning at the time, Obama issued a statement backing Sebelius because she “could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old” going into a drugstore, should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect.


Sebelius’s ruling was challenged, and now a federal judge in New York State is giving the FDA 30 days to lift any restrictions on Plan B.

Federal District Court Judge Edward Korman was tough on the FDA, saying the agency “has engaged in intolerable delays . . . that could accurately be described as administrative agency filibuster,” and even tougher on Sebelius. He called her decision “arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.”

On the day of Korman’s ruling, the White House said the president supported the Sebelius decision after she made it, “and he supports that decision today.” Whether that means the ruling will be appealed is still unclear. If it isn’t, the political calculus will be clear. He’s on the other side of those crazy moralists who worry about the message behind Plan B access for all.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.