If you haven’t heard already, dear readers, take heed: We’ve got a reason to celebrate a little bit o’progress, because Plan B One-Step is now available without a prescription and over the counter to minors aged 15 and up on American soil. The F.D.A. announced earlier this week that the emergency contraceptive pill, which can reduce the risk of pregnancy by up to 95%, will be shelved alongside condoms, spermicides and other sexual health products at drugstores. Purchasers of the pill must prove their age using a driver’s license, passport or birth certificate, and cashiers will be prompted to ask for a valid I.D. when they scan the barcode.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of what this decision really means, let’s get a few tiny misconceptions about Plan B out of the way. The emergency contraceptive pill has been shamed and shunned by conservative and pro-life groups as an “abortion pill” that murders fetuses, encourages teens to have lots of naughty promiscuous sex and poses more dangerous health risks than say, aspirin. But do not cower in the face of ignorance, my comrades! Because we’ve got some real-McCoy scientific factual facts on our side with this one. Hip hip, hoo ha!
Studies have shown that levonorgestrel-alone emergency contraceptive pills (a.k.a. Plan B) pose no health risks to women or adolescents and don’t increase risky sexual behavior. They’re not addictive, toxic or allergenic, and they don’t increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy. You can’t overdose on them, as opposed to most other over-the-counter drugs, which can cause death. And taking the pill cannot, does not, and won’t ever abort an existing pregnancy. It ain’t RU486, people! It simply stops one’s lady organs from ovulating. And no ovulation means no unwanted pregnancies. Presto, no prego! And that, my friends, is good for society – we’d save over $12 billion a year in taxpayer money if all unwanted pregnancies were avoided by pragmatic preventative measures.
Now, to most progressive advocates who support universal access to reproductive health care for all sexually-active guys and gals, this seems like a solid step forward. Yay! you might exclaim robustly. We’re kinda-sorta progressive like France and Europe now, except teens still have rustle up about $49.99 if they’re in a pregnancy-scare pinch, as opposed to getting it for free. Not bad, you might say, for a nation that notoriously has many qualms about comprehensive, evidence-based public school sex education and common sense reproductive rights for women.
It’s a good step in the right direction – there’s no doubt about that. But let’s take a look at this on a deeper level to really understand what’s going on here and what more needs to change.
The decision was actually a highly charged compromise of sorts: Originally, due to a ruling last month by U.S. District Judge Edward Korman of New York, Plan B was supposed to be available without a prescription to anyone, regardless of their age. The F.D.A. was informed that it had 30 days to perk up its ears and act.
But alas, the federal court order was far too radical for the current administration. As a result, what we saw this week was a concession by the F.D.A. to meet Judge Korman halfway, while appeasing Obama’s White House at the same time (our man Barack said he didn’t like the idea of the pill being sold “alongside bubblegum”… le sigh). So the next day, boys and girls, the Justice Department decided to formally appeal the judge’s original decision, much to the dismay of reproductive rights activists and fellow likeminded progressives alike. In the meantime though, Plan B One-Step will be available to teens as young as 15 with a valid form of I.D. from this week onwards.
While we shake our heads and give the stanky eye to our dusty 2008 HOPE posters, let’s have a look at other societies around the world who seem to have gotten this whole teen sexual health thing right. As with other controversial issues, there is much to learn from other countries’ policies on how we can improve our own.
After all, our nation is clearly missing the mark when it comes to pregnancy, STD rates and contraceptive use among sexually-active youth. More than four times as many American teens become pregnant unintentionally than their counterparts in the Netherlands. The birth rate is double that – eight times higher than the teen birth rate in the Netherlands and five times higher than France’s. And let’s not get started on those STD’s: researchers estimate that American teens have double the amount of preventable STD’s than those in Europe.
Amurrrca, f*ck no! For the love of pubescent ladies and gents across this fine nation who are gettin’ frisky, we need to look at what those Europeans across the pond have done to provide for, educate and their sexually-active teens. The basic approach is this: evidence-based, comprehensive sex education, free or low-cost accessibility to contraception and a (generally) more open attitude at home towards sex and sexuality. Education, access and openness. Scribble that down and send it to Congress and parents everywhere, amirght?
The sad truth, however, is that the US isn’t ready to go out and play with the big kids yet. We’re a sheltered, timid society. We like to push icky things like sex under the rug, where they belong. We like to pretend that our kids aren’t getting hot and heavy when mom and dad aren’t looking, even though that’s a big fat delusion with detrimental consequences.
As much as there is to be excited about the new measure, we need to be cautious and realistic about it, too. Yes, minors aged 15 and up can have non-prescription, anonymous access to the pill if they have a valid form of ID. But let’s pause for a sec here: when you were 15, did you have any idea where your birth certificate was located without asking your parents? And as for driver’s licenses – 15-year-olds don’t have them, and only about 30% of 16-year-olds do. And in some states, the percentage of people with a passport is less than 20%; we can assume that most of them are adults. And don’t forget the hefty price: 50 bux for a pill? What young teen has that much babysitting money saved up and ready to use on a whim?
So don’t freak out too much, conservatives – more likely than not, teens will still have to go through their parents or legal guardians if they happen to have unprotected sex and need the morning-after pill. And even though science and statistics are on the side of teen sex ed and free access to contraception, America still has a long way to go before the US-Europe comparative graphs show a better story.
Because the thing is, while this whole Plan-B access to 15-and-ups is a solid step in the right direction as well as a bold statement to the current administration, I can’t help but feel like we’re popping Insanity Disc 3 in before we’ve learned how to get up on our own two feet. Before we do that, we need to be comfortable with our own biology and not call it porn. And there needs to be a conscious, active shift in the way we talk about sex, because the fact that “squeamishness and concern describe most parents’ approach to their offspring’s carnality” is just plain embarrassing. These entrenched, scaredy-cat cultural attitudes towards the birds and the bees trickle down and materialize into the unhealthy, harmful sex-related decisions we see teens make. It’s not their fault, after all – we’re failing them as a society, as a community and as a family. Easy access to an effective preventative contraceptive measure like Plan B is great, but we can’t ignore or overlook the other vital pieces of this puzzle. Let’s get to work on those, too, and then we’ll see some results.
So thank you, F.D.A., for inching us forward towards progress. But we’ve still got a ways to go.
Written by Alia Gilbert
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