The XX Factor

Did the Obama Administration Miscalculate on Plan B?

Kathleen Sebelius.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius has come under fire for her overrule of the FDA on Plan B

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

Seems the Obama administration will be disappointed, if they were hoping for an end to the backlash against HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius making the unprecedented move of overruling the FDA’s decision to make Plan B emergency contraception available over the counter without age restrictions. For one thing, the legal manuevering is far from over, with a federal judge specifically recommending to the Center for Reproductive Rights that they reopen a 2005 lawsuit against the FDA, and add Kathleen Sebelius as a defendant. Even though some pro-choice Democrats in Congress are reluctant to criticize Sebelius, Sen. Patty Murray sent a letter signed by 14 senators to Sebelius, demanding that she explain the science she used to justify this decision. 

Now even some Republicans are making Obama look bad on this one. Michael Bloomberg criticized the administration, even though in doing so he seems to display a poor understanding of how Plan B works. (It works by suppressing ovulation for that single cycle, though a massive anti-choice misinformation campaign has misled many people into thinking Plan B has something to do with abortion. It does, only insofar as it prevents abortions.) Most Republican politicians are understandably silent on this issue, but at least one member of the cable news shock troops, former speechwriter for Condoleezza Rice, Elisa Jordan, used the opportunity to take potshots at Obama for political pandering and ignoring pertinent facts (such as how few 11-year-olds have sex) when making the decision. The perception is out there that this decision could chill the enthusiasm many young women feel for the Obama administration, which could do some damage in the 2012 race. Watching former FDA official Dr. Susan Wood demonstrate exactly how safe and easy Plan B is to use on Up with Chris Hayes, it’s hard to avoid agreeing. Once you realize how easy and safe Plan B really is, it’s undeniable that the administration sent out a signal to the young women of America that their basic ability to read a one-page sheet and swallow a single pill is being called into question. If someone thinks you weren’t capable of performing that simple task at age 15, they basically think you’re too stupid to work a voting machine properly. Not a good message for getting young women out to vote.

The administration’s political calculation here is understandable. I’ve definitely seen in the past week how the very idea of teenage girls being sexual is still treated as an affront to Daddy’s authority, and it causes many people to become so angry and upset that basic reason and evidence cannot penetrate their brain. No matter how many times you point out that the sex has already happened when a girl is buying a pill (and that denying it to her won’t reverse time and re-virginize her to Daddy’s exact specifications), or that we were all fooling around as teenagers and it worked out just fine, or that mandatory pregnancy is an excessive punishment even if you think that sex for young women is wrong, the result is the same. It’s like shooting oil balls at a tub of water: The facts skim the surface, but they can’t penetrate the thick layer of “Daddy said no sex, girls must obey without question, and no punishment is too excessive for disobeying Daddy.” Those folks are loud and numerous, and they vote, too. Even though most are Republicans, many are Democrats and independents, and the administration is aware of that. But do they outnumber young women who supported Obama vociferously in 2008, and do not appreciate being told that we’re too stupid to handle a medication that is the standard-bearer for an idiot-proof drug?