In a surprising turn of events, the Obama administration has ended its fight to enforce age regulations on the purchase of the morning-after contraceptive pill, Plan B. While this is certainly progress to be celebrated, Obama's decision may not be as progressive as it first seems. In fact, Obama's reversal is rooted in the same antiquated reasoning as his initial opposition to making the contraceptive widely available: a patriarchal mistrust of young women's sexuality.
Obama claims he favors age restrictions on the morning-after pill because there are not enough studies to illustrate its effect on young women. However, plentiful research shows that Plan B does less damage than aspirin for teenage girls, and is certainly less risky than pregnancy. What, then, is the real cause behind Obama's position?
"I will say this, as the father of two daughters," Obama said regarding Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius's previous denial to provide the contraceptive for all ages despite FDA approval, "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."
Unfortunately, Obama's "common sense" seems disturbingly similar to what the rest of us may call outdated patriarchal values. Obama explained Sebelius's denial as caused by a wariness of 10- and 11-year-old girls going into a drugstore and buying a medication next to "the bubble gum and batteries." (Never mind that contraceptives are stored next to condoms, not in the check-out aisle, and that young women probably could not afford the contraceptive anyways.)
Obama used his position as a father to explain that the idea of making the drug available to his daughters without a prescription made him uncomfortable, and stated, "I think most parents would probably feel the same way."
This language is patronizing to young women, assuming that they do not fully understand the choice they would be making (instead, they would be tricked into it by the presence of gum?). Obama is applying his desire as a father to control his child's actions to all young women, and when this desire for control is expanded on such a scale, it becomes an extension of patriarchal control over female bodies.
Not to mention ... not all young women have parents they can trust to be supportive when approached with such issues.
Now, it is true that this was said in an election year, when Obama was probably careful not to upset his more conservative supporters. One might assume that Obama's current decision reflects his real values. Obama said on May 2 that "I think it's very important that women have control over their health care choices. We want to make sure that they have access to contraception."
I don't doubt that Obama believes these words. However, it seems that Obama draws a stark line between women and girls, and may not fully understand how his condescension to girls encourages a similar condescension to adult women. After all, an anonymous senior administrator official told the Washington Post that President Obama "has not changed his position and still opposes over-the-counter access to emergency contraceptives for young girls."
This decision was, at least in part, an effort to retain whatever control possible over young women's sexuality. Recently, Federal Judge Edward Korman's impassioned letter declared that the Obama administration's previous ruling was "largely an insult to the intelligence of women," and the U.S. Court of Appeals refused to fully delay moving the contraceptive over the counter. The anonymous senior official said the government was aware it would probably lose its bid to restrict the contraceptive by age.
Instead of facing another loss and having both the one- and two-pill versions of the product available over the counter, the administration decided to allow a one-dose variant of the medication. The Justice Department will not lift restrictions on the two-pill Plan B product because it believes it is significantly different than the one-pill version.
So what is so different about two pills instead of one? The Justice Department explained in its letter announcing their decision that this was necessary because there was not sufficient data addressing "the ability of adolescents, including adolescents, to understand and follow the directions for safe and effective use."
In other words, the Obama administration does not believe that women are smart enough to realize that they have to take two pills instead of one in that version of the medication. Talk about "an insult to the intelligence of women."
Thankfully, the two-pill versions of the product are a diminishing fraction of the market, so the effect of this exclusion is minimal. Nonetheless, the argument that young women will not understand how to take two separate doses of a pill reveals a remaining mistrust of female intelligence and sexuality underlying this decision.
As Anna Hogeland wrote for PolicyMic before this decision was announced, "It seems Obama, and many who share his view, are resistant to acknowledge the sexual activity of their young daughters, consensual or otherwise. By restricting their daughters' access to emergency contraceptives — which they will more likely need without a proper safe sex talk and don't-have-sex-but-if-you-do-use-a-condom condoms — more girls will be faced to decide between abortion and young motherhood."
With this decision, these women will not be restricted in their choice any longer. For this alone, the Obama administration's decision is revolutionary and admirable. However, it is worth taking a moment to consider its motivations and to acknowledge the power of these patriarchal undertones to influence even a progressive, pro-woman president.