First there was that Texas HPV vaccine kerfuffle at the Republican debates. Now there’s the Plan B kerfuffle in the White House, as the Food and Drug Administration and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius bandy around arguments on expanding the availability of the “morning-after” contraceptive pill to the under-17 set, a plan the FDA approved but Sebelius shot down, with the president’s support.
This is easy to understand. Most politics can be summarized by the adjuration “Avoid, at all costs, doing anything that gives people the opportunity to use your name and the phrase ‘11-year-old girls having sex’ in the same sentence.” Do that, and you’re fine, unless the economy tanks.
But everyone insists that this is not exactly what the discussion is about. No, this debate is about science.
Sure, science is involved. But when push comes to shove, this is not a resolution deciding whether, say, the moon gets to stay put, or the dodo is declared un-extinct. And perhaps scientific concerns about the physiological differences between 11- and 12-year-olds, as well as teens, were the sole motivating factor in Sebelius’s decision, as she claimed. But President Obama’s defense of her decision implies a wealth of other considerations involved, as The Post’s Rob Stein and Ann Kornblut reported:
“I will say this,” he said. “As the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine.”
“And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old, going to a drug store, should be able to, alongside bubble gum or batteries,” purchase a powerful drug to stop a pregnancy, Obama said. “I think most parents would probably feel the same way.”
It’s a policy decision. Whether the under-17 set is allowed access to Plan B is something the government gets to decide and that involves considerations that go beyond safety. Eleven-year-olds having sex is the canonical Extreme Example Everyone Agrees Is Wrong. But how to deal with that?
So far, the debate dances around the question. The arguments marshaled on both sides are somewhat ridiculous:
●“There are risks of misusing the medication.”
This is something Plan B shares with everything sold over the counter or in the aisles of CVS. Misuse a plunger and you could be looking at costly surgery. Misuse the Sudafed and you're looking at jail time, or at least an AMC series. Laxatives, too, are liable to misuse — you can disguise them as candy sprinkles and bake them into cakes — and you don’t need an ID to purchase those. Name a substance, and I will name a misuse for that substance.
●“This interferes with parents’ ability to monitor their children.”
This does? This is the part that does? If the only time you monitor your kids is when they ask if you will come with them to purchase Plan B, this is unfortunate but hardly Plan B's fault.
●“These are dangerous hormones being made available to minors.” That’s the definition of the teenage years — dangerous hormones gradually made available to minors. Have you tried testosterone lately? And this hormone isn’t even especially dangerous — it’s already prescribed to girls under 17.
●“This ought to be about just science. Only focus on the science!”
That worries me, too. The pornographic magazines behind the counter pose no choking hazards, but I don’t want toddlers to be able to wander in and purchase them willy-nilly, to pick another Extreme Example Everyone Agrees Is Wrong. Unless the articles are especially illuminating.
I understand the concerns on both sides, but I generally feel that if a teenager needs access to a morning-after pill, it is better that she have it than not. There are some dire situations where it’s the best solution. And even in less-urgent scenarios, the last thing you want is people who are unable to remember simple things like “Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective form of contraception” being forced to care for babies. In some cases, that’s all they were taught, no one cluttering their minds with complicated things like condoms, and this deplorable failure of memory bodes poorly. Babies require a lot of care. You cannot simply leave them in train stations, or people start passing remarks.
Plan B, at best, implies the presence and failure of a Plan A. Will it always be used that way? No, obviously. But is that use valid? I think so, and making it available on pharmacy shelves would make it easier for people who need it to get it within the time window when taking it would be most effective.
Comparisons to alcohol only go so far. Not selling alcohol to people under 21, in an ideal world, could keep those people from access to alcohol. But making Plan B more inaccessible to minors won't prevent them from having sex. It’ll simply make it more difficult for them to do so responsibly. Next we’ll stop selling calamine lotion. “That'll prevent mosquito bites,” we’ll murmur.
If it were simply a question of whether Plan B is safe to consume, the FDA’s ruling might well have stood. But instead Plan B is a subject that brings in the sex lives of 11-year-old girls. “Those should not exist,” everyone says. It’s a canonical Extreme Example Everyone Agrees On. The trouble is where to go from there.