A couple of weeks ago, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled both the FDA and White House experts, and made it illegal for teenagers under the age of 17 to obtain Plan B without a prescription. Days later, President Barack Obama agreed with Sebelius’ decision and enforced the ban. When he did so, he noted it was not just as President – but “as the father of two daughters.” Ugh. Inappropriate alert: it’s not okay to make decisions for every teenage girl in America because you’d rather yours never had sex. Moving on.
First, a little bit about Plan B. Plan B is a hormone based contraceptive pill that, if taken within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse, can prevent pregnancy. Plan B is not an abortion pill; Plan B will not induce an abortion; Plan B is not an abortion pill. Yes, I felt compelled to repeat this several times, because some people just don’t get that this isn’t about abortions – this is about contraception.
Now, let’s apply some logic to the debate over the availability of OTC contraceptives. Since we allow teenagers under the age of 17 to purchase other kinds of over-the-counter contraception, including: condoms (male and female), spermicide, contraceptive films, and vaginal sponges, it stands to reason that we should allow them to purchase this other OTC contraceptive.
Why are we making an exception for this particular method of birth control? Many critics charge that Plan B is dangerous, and can have adverse effects if taken by girls – therefore, because of that risk, their parents should be able to decide if their kid can take the drug, and it shouldn’t be over the counter. Let’s take a look at that argument, too.
Here is a list of other OTC medications that are available without a prescription to teenagers and adolescents (from Jezebel.com):
Possible side effects: allergic reaction; impaired thinking and reactions; dizziness or headache; rash; nausea, vomiting, or stomach upset; when abused, can lead to hallucinations and paranoia, as well as possible irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, brain lesions, epilepsy, and permanent psychosis
Overdose effects: at least one death has been reported as a result of Robitussin overdose, but psychological ill effects, like the feeling of being trapped in a “time loop,” may be more common
Possible side effects: allergic reaction; impaired ability to drive or operate machinery; sleepiness, fatigue, or dizziness; headache; dry mouth; difficulty urinating or an enlarged prostate.
Overdose effects: extreme sleepiness; fever; hallucinations; seizures
Possible side effects: allergic reaction; fever; cold symptoms such as stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat; stomach pain, gas; nausea, vomiting, diarrhea; headache; magnesium deficiency which may cause seizures; increased risk of bone fractures
Overdose effects: drowsiness; blurred vision; fast heartbeat; nausea; vomiting; sweating; headache; dry mouth
Possible side effects: allergic reaction; upset stomach, mild heartburn, diarrhea, constipation; bloating, gas; dizziness, headache, nervousness; skin itching or rash; blurred vision; ringing in ears; chest pain, weakness, shortness of breath, slurred speech, problems with vision or balance; black, bloody, or tarry stools, coughing up blood or vomit that looks like coffee grounds; swelling or rapid weight gain; urinating less than usual or not at all; nausea, upper stomach pain, itching, loss of appetite, dark urine, clay-colored stools, jaundice (yellowing of the skin or eyes); fever, sore throat, and headache with a severe blistering, peeling, and red skin rash; bruising, severe tingling, numbness, pain, muscle weakness; or severe headache, neck stiffness, chills, increased sensitivity to light, and/or seizure (convulsions)
Overdose effects: stomach bleeding; difficulty breathing; coma
Possible side effects: allergic reaction
Overdose effects: possible liver failure and death
Now, let’s take a look at the label warnings for Plan B:
Possible side effects: allergic reaction; ectopic pregnancy; nausea, diarrhea, or stomach pain; breast pain or tenderness; dizziness, tired feeling; changes in menstrual periods; headache
Overdose effects: nausea, vomiting
Over-the-counter? 17 and older only
It is clear that there are other OTC medications available that have much more dangerous side effects than Plan B could possibly hope to have. So that, too, is not the real reason we want to keep Plan B out of the hands of adolescents.
The Plan B debate is yet another example of an attempt by our increasingly conservative government to limit access to reasonable contraceptive methods. Beyond that, it is also part and parcel with the mixed message paradigm we provide to young women every day, through advertising, television shows, and print media: it’s a good idea to look as sexy as you can, but whatever you do, don’t actually explore your sexuality – because if you do, and you make a mistake, we will shame you and expect you to pay for it.
I think the idea of shame is at the core of this debate: parents want to shame their teenage daughters into telling them about their sex lives so that they can buy the drug (in the obvious hope that this threat will prevent an actual sex life); the government wants to shame young women into contrition by forcing them to go to a doctor to get a prescription; our society (increasingly) wants to shame women into unhealthy, unwanted pregnancies by making it harder and harder to take the steps necessary to prevent it in the first place.
In America, there is this essential idea that, for females, sex comes with a price, and each and every one of us are expected to pay. Since society can’t fully exact this toll on adult women – too many of us are both too confident in our sexuality and too resourceful to give up our birth control options – the next best thing is to get ‘em while they’re young, and make sure we start punishing and shaming young women in the early stages of their sexual understanding.
Barring Plan B from OTC sales for teenagers isn’t designed to prevent negative side effects or to prevent some girls from having sex. It’s just another example of the government butting into women’s reproductive rights, using the threat of humiliation to keep our “ladies” chaste and “loose women” appropriately branded. This decision is designed to punish for a lifetime the mistake of a moment.