WASHINGTON—They lost me at the word “women.”
As so often happens with contemporary debate, arguments being proffered in support of allowing teenagers as young as 15 (and possibly younger) to buy the “morning-after pill” without adult supervision are false on their premise.
Here’s an experiment to demonstrate.
Question 1: Do you think that women should have access to Plan B, also known as the morning-after pill, to be used at their own discretion? Yes!
Question 2: Do you think that girls as young as 11 or 12 should be able to buy the morning-after pill without any adult supervision? Didn’t think so.
Question 3: If you answered yes to Question 2, are you a parent? Didn’t think so.
Perhaps a few parents answered yes to Question 3, but I suspect not many. Yet, repeatedly in the past several days, we’ve heard the argument that any interference with the over-the-counter sale of Plan B to any female of any age is blocking a woman’s right to self-determination. Fifteen-year-olds, where the Obama administration wants to set the limit, are girls, not women. And female parts do not a woman make any more than a correspondingly developed male makes the proud possessor a man.
The debate arose after a federal judge last month ordered that the government remove all obstacles to over-the-counter sales of Plan B. Administration policy is that children as young as 15 can buy the drug without a prescription or parental knowledge. They do have to show identification proving they are 15, which, as critics of such restrictions have pointed out, is problematic for many teens.
Apparently the Obama administration agrees that young girls shouldn’t use so serious a drug, even though proclaimed medically “safe,” without adult supervision. The Justice Department has given notice that it will appeal the judge’s decision, a move that could potentially backfire and, in fact, remove all age barriers.
The dominant question is legitimate: Even if we would prefer that girls not be sexually active so early in life, wouldn’t we rather they block a pregnancy before it happens than wait and face the worse prospect of abortion?
The pros are obvious: Plan B, if taken within three days of unprotected sex, greatly reduces the chance of pregnancy. If a child waits too long to take the pill, however, a fertilized egg could reach the uterine wall and become implanted, after which the drug is useless.
You see how the word “child” keeps getting in the way.
There’s no point debating whether such young girls should be sexually active. Obviously, given the potential consequences, both physical and psychological, the answer is no. Just as obvious, our culture says quite the opposite: As long as there’s an exit, whether abortion or Plan B, what’s the incentive to await mere maturity?
Advocates for lifting age limits on Plan B, including Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, insist that the pill is universally safe and, therefore, all age barriers should be dropped. From a strictly utilitarian viewpoint, this may be well-advised. But is science the only determining factor when it comes to the well-being of our children? Even President Obama, who once boasted that his policies would be based on science and not emotion, has parental qualms about children buying serious drugs to treat a condition that has deeply psychological underpinnings.
What about the right of parents to protect their children? A 15-year-old can’t get Tylenol at school without parental permission, but we have no hesitation about children taking a far more serious drug without oversight?
These are fair questions that deserve more than passing scrutiny—or indictments of prudishness. A Slate headline about the controversy goes: “The Politics of Prude.” More to the point: The slippery slope away from parental autonomy is no paranoid delusion. Whatever parents may do to try to delay the ruin of childhood innocence, the culture says otherwise: Have sex, take a pill, don’t tell mom.
Where, finally, do we draw the increasingly blurred line for childhood?
Americans may disagree about what is sexually appropriate for their children. And everyone surely wishes to prevent children from having babies. But public policy should be aimed at involving rather than marginalizing parents.
To say that this controversy is strictly political is no argument against debate. Politics is the debate about the role of government in our lives. And the debate about Plan B is fundamentally about whether government or parents have ultimate authority over their children’s well-being.
Parker’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group.