By Ellen Goodman
With the FDA set to restrict over-the-counter sales of the “morning-after pill” to people over 18, right-wingers are sending the message to young girls that motherhood is their punishment for having sex.
BOSTON—It’s not that I’m a cheapskate. I am eager to pop the cork on the bottle of champagne that’s been chilling for nearly three years, waiting for the FDA to finally approve Plan B.
After Tuesday’s meeting between the agency and the manufacturer, it looks as if—fingers and toes and eyes crossed—the deal is nearly done. Finally, and I do mean finally, the “morning-after pill’’ may be accessible the morning after without a prescription.
Emergency contraception is the one swath of common ground in the abortion wars. Plan B can prevent pregnancy and, therefore, abortion. It tells you how bad things are when wrenching approval for contraception out of the Bush administration counts as a smashing victory.
Nevertheless, my champagne flute is still going to be half full. This is a victory with a big asterisk. The price of getting women 18 and older easy access to Plan B has been to exclude those under 18. It’s hard to celebrate policies and politics that subject girls to bigger hurdles and solidify the message that motherhood is their punishment for sex.
Let’s go back over this torturous history. In 2003, the FDA’s scientific advisers overwhelmingly recommended Plan B as safe and effective enough to be sold over the counter without any age restriction. It was described as “safer than aspirin.’’ The right wing promptly went ballistic and tried to cast Plan B as an abortion pill. When that failed scientific muster—emergency contraception does nothing if you’re pregnant—the same groups got behind the push for escalating age restrictions.
First, a cowed and politicized FDA told the manufacturer to reapply, restricting the pills to 16 and over. Then, more than a year later, one acting FDA commissioner upped the age up to 17. Now the newest acting FDA commissioner, Andrew von Eschenbach, has pushed the age up to 18.
While I suppose we should be grateful that he didn’t push it to menopause, why exactly did the would-be commissioner pick 18? Was there some new data? A new study perhaps? The most that any senator could get out of him at the confirmation hearings on his appointment was pretty cryptic: “I believe 18 is appropriate.’’ With that, von Eschenbach won the title of “The Believer’’ to match his friend and president, “The Decider.’’
The arguments in favor of the age restriction are indeed matters of unscientific belief. The morning-after pill does not change the night-before behavior, a favorite argument of those who equate E.C. with promiscuity. Nor does it replace ordinary contraceptives.
As for the truly bizarre idea offered by opponents such as the Concerned Women for America, that a predator or rapist could “buy the drug in order to cover up his abuse’‘?
“If you can get your mind around the idea that contraception is a program for enabling predators, you get the Twister Award,” says James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth. Couldn’t the rapist cover his, um, tracks, by buying condoms on the drugstore shelf?
If supporters are ready to break out the bubbly, it’s because we have to take the deal that’s on the table. But we also have to ask why it’s right—far right—to make it harder for those who are younger.
This is what’s going around. Two weeks ago, the Senate voted for the Child Custody Protection Act that could place another barrier before the most vulnerable teenagers—those with an unwanted pregnancy and unapproachable parents. If the bill is reconciled with the House version, aunts, grandmothers and sisters could be sent to jail, for accompanying a minor to a state that doesn’t demand parental notification.
Then there is abstinence-only education. We’re seeing a decline in teen pregnancies due partially to increases in abstinence and mostly to increases in contraceptive use. But abstinence-only policymakers are teaching the “right” message with the wrong silence about birth control. As Wagoner says, “Are these conservatives interested in reducing pregnancy and abortion or are they simply interested in penalizing those who have sex?’‘
There are still about 750,000 teenagers below 18 who get pregnant every year. About 70 percent of all Americans have sex by age 18. It’s no wonder that nine states have lower age restrictions for getting E.C. over the counter than the FDA is demanding.
We are about to get easier access to Plan B—B for Backup. When plan A goes awry, when there are mistakes and accidents, more women will be able to be saved from the unhappy choices of an unwanted pregnancy. I’ll happily drink to that.
But on the day that we offer the same chance to girls who are the least ready to face either abortion or motherhood, I’ll raise my glass a lot higher.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at symbol)globe.com.