In Plan B debate, politics obscures the reality

Petula Dvorak
Columnist December 12, 2011

The outrage last week was all about calculated political risks and party bases and campaign pledges.

Lost in all the politics surrounding the Plan B debate? Babies, teens and the life-crushing reality that comes when the two meet. That reality is on display at the District’s family shelter, where teen moms cart around their belongings in plastic bags as their babies try to sleep, crumpled up in cheap strollers.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Would their lives be dramatically different if they had been able to go to a CVS and buy the pill known as Plan B?

Plan B is the little pink chicklet also called the morning-after pill. Anyone older than 17 can buy it by asking a pharmacist, and if a woman takes it within three days of unprotected sex, it can prevent an egg from being fertilized. But a decision by the Obama administration last week will keep Plan B out of the hands of younger teens.

Some folks cheered that decision, saying Plan B is nothing but an abortion in a blister pack that would encourage promiscuity. Others say the science is no different than birth control, and the pill is a safe, affordable and accessible way to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.

Take that debate down to the tiny rooms of counseling centers across the region. The places where metal chairs squeak as scared and pregnant teens shift in uncomfortable silence, trying to figure out what to do.

At that delicate crossroads of politics, religion, morality and economics, counselors see Plan B as a powerful solution.

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” said Jasmine Williams, a peer counselor at Sasha Bruce Youthwork Inc. in the District, where she talks to teens who are often homeless and abused.

“We discuss all their options,” Williams said. “And so many times, that Plan B is the only way.”

Last week, there was a possibility that the pill would be made available to anyone of any age, over the counter and without a prescription, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled that it is safe for girls to use.

Counselors such as Williams say it is a lifeline for teens who have no safety net, no adult help, no feasible way to get to a doctor, no money for an abortion and nowhere to go but down if they have a baby.

Teen pregnancy is still a problem in the District, where more than 1,000 teens between 15 and 19 had children in 2009. An additional 26 girls 14 or younger also gave birth.

The human cost is obvious. Only half of the nation’s teen moms ever earn a high school diploma; more than half of them go on welfare. More than 75 percent of kids in foster care in D.C. have teen parents; and more than half of the families started by teens live in poverty.

But it goes beyond the tough road for those parents and kids, said Brenda Rhodes Miller, executive director of the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. It costs you, too.

The District spends about a billion dollars every year on families that began with a pregnant teen.

Condoms are given away at school; funding for abstinence programs has increased. But the teen pregnancy rate remained much higher in the District in 2009 than it was nationally, according to numbers from the D.C. Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Counselors were hoping that unlimited access to the morning-after pill could change that. But U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA, blocking the possibility that kids can buy it as easily as gum.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, some folks said.

“If that happened, there might be a lot of pregnancies that parents don’t know about,” said Llouana Harper, who counsels pregnant teens at her private practice, Group Therapy Associates in Haymarket. In Virginia, teen pregnancy varies from pretty low (31 for every 1,000 in Northern Virginia) to pretty high (61 for every 1,000 in the southern part of the commonwealth.)

She sees teens from all over the economic spectrum. One thing she can say is that they are uniformly pretty clueless.

Some of the oldest myths — you can’t get pregnant your first time, or you can’t get pregnant if you have oral sex first — still abound. And what’s shocking is that these are kids who talk big, dress old and act years beyond their age.

“What I’ve noticed is they are doing it all much younger. And the younger ones are developing sooner and sooner. I’m looking at young girls these days, they look 17 years old and they are just 12 or 13.”

That’s a problem that a little pink pill — easy to get or not — won’t solve.

“For a lot the girls, there are some self-esteem and self-image issues,” she said. “It gets translated into the idea that if they have a baby, it’ll give them someone to love, someone who will love them back unconditionally.”

Because they thought no one else would.

The answer to that seems much simpler than a little pink pill. And more complicated, too.

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