The Plan B Decision: Sacrificing “Change We Can Believe In” for Expediency?


See all our coverage of the Administration’s 2011 Emergency Contraception Reversal here.

Like every other rational individual in our country, I was in a state of utter shock when I heard the news that, for the first time in history, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had overruled a fact-based decision by the FDA. While this type of nonsensical anti-choice maneuver is something pro-choicers have had to deal with in the past, the fact that it was carried out by a Democratic administration was nothing less than devastating. The administration ignored sound evidence (and women’s basic rights) and did what they are quickly becoming best known for, sacrificing “change we can believe in” for “never mind what’s right, I will shirk away from anything that could possibly be considered controversial and cost me a vote in my reelection campaign.”

And yes, it was abundantly clear to me within a few moments that this was nothing but a case of political posturing by Obama and his team of advisers. For many obvious reasons this was clearly not a case of Secretary Sebelius going rogue and determining, as a non-medical professional, that the scientists and researchers at the FDA, in their ten-plus years of evaluating over-the-counter use of emergency contraception, had somehow failed to adequately address the subject at hand in their research. Her flimsy response citing an issue that could have easily been addressed in say, the past 10 years (if it were an actual issue, which it is not), did nothing to convince me otherwise. Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who are in a position to know a thing or two about the proper use of emergency contraception (because, unlike Sebelius, they are medical and public health experts who have addressed this issue daily since emergency contraception came into existence), happen to wholeheartedly agree with my conclusion.

In a particularly disheartening statement from one of the only four (yes, really) members of Congress who actually spoke up on the issue, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) managed to release this depressing gem of a proclamation, “I think the president has not been with us 100 percent, but I don’t think he’s thrown women totally under the bus.”

He hasn’t thrown women totally under the bus? This is now that the standard by which we judge the leader of the party that is supposed to protect women’s rights? Not throwing women’s rights totally under the bus?

This telling statement and the unacceptably small number of Democrats in Congress willing to criticize Obama’s blatant disregard for the health and rights of women should serve as a huge wake up call to us. We cannot let the Democrats, let our president, lose sight of what this decades-old debate about access to all forms of reproductive health care is really about; that is, for women to have any sort of autonomy and self-determination within our society. When you make this connection explicit, it renders all of their “compromises” with an unrelenting and regressive conservative party seem horribly unacceptable. In fact, that is precisely why the United Nations was advised to consider any such maneuvers a violation of women’s human rights.

The UN Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council, when tasked with submitting a report to the committee on the connection between reproductive health and human rights, asserted that legal restrictions on access to reproductive health services serve to systematically deprive women of full participation in society. It is clear why the Rapporteur came to this conclusion when we look back at our own nation’s history; it is no coincidence that it was only when women gained widespread access to oral contraception in the early 1970s that we were able, for the first time, to fully and sustainably participate in the public sphere (though patterns of working outside the home have always varied by race and by class, access to oral contraception was one of the primary shifts that allowed for all women to begin working outside the home). The simple truth of the matter is that if a woman is not able to safely opt out of or delay pregnancy, then it is nearly impossible for her to pursue things like education and work outside the home. If you need proof of this lesson from outside the broad strokes of history, feel free to ask any woman who has had a career outside of the home or managed to avoid an unintended pregnancy in college or high school, where she would be without access to contraception.

In his report, the Rapporteur goes on to note that:

Public morality cannot serve as a justification for enactment or enforcement of laws that may result in human rights violation, including those intended to regulate sexual and reproductive conduct and decision making. Although securing particular public health outcomes is a legitimate State aim, measures taken to achieve this must be both evidenced-based and proportionate… legal restrictions that reduce or deny access to family planning goods and services…such as emergency contraception, constitute a violation.

Enforcement of public morality around emergency contraception without any basis in evidence sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it? What did our President say again of his administration’s decision? I believe it was, ah yes,

And as I understand it, the reason Kathleen made this decision was she could not be confident that a 10-year-old or an 11-year-old, going to a drug store, should be able to, alongside bubble gum or batteries, purchase a powerful drug to stop a pregnancy… I think most parents would probably feel the same way.

Aside from the fact that Obama misrepresents how this drug works, it prevents pregnancy, it does not “stop a pregnancy,” others have appropriately commented on how a) this statement completely distorts the population the decision affected (aka ALL women and b) Obama’s words are incredibly insulting and paternalistic. However, what I am most interested in for the purposes of this analysis is how President Obama’s actions and words demonstrate a complete lack of understanding and/or callousness about something that was very clear to the UN Rapporteur and should be clear to a President who considers himself a student of history (I would hope he has read a book or two on U.S. history which included a few chapters on women). There is an inextricable link between women’s reproductive rights and our freedom and self-determination within a society, thus any President who restricts access to reproductive healthcare violates women’s human rights and certainly cannot claim to be pro-woman. Period.

Now the question is, where does that leave the pro-choice, pro-woman community who feels betrayed both by the actions of our President (and the line of thinking behind them) and by our party? Particularly when we hear more than whispers of another potential move to undermine our rights.

Quite frankly I do not have an answer. But I do know this: Obama’s political calculation in the Plan B scenario relied on the belief that no matter what he does, pro-choice women will rally, raise money, and vote for him in 2012 because there is just no better option. However, despite the fact that Obama thinks women are incapable of following directions for a one-step pill, we just might be smart enough to hold him and our party accountable, with our votes and with our voices, to the women who put them in office.

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  • johann7

    This finally tipped it for me. Despite all of the rallying and contacting Democrat representatives and the White House, Obama continues to cater to the Right wing and ignore the Democrat base. I will not vote for the guy in 2012, even as the least-worst option, since apparently the only thing that’s going to wake the (national) Dems up is a bunch of electoral losses. I urge everyone (well everyone Left of Obama) who isn’t going to vote for Obama to write Warren in instead. If she gets a sizable portion of votes (even a few percent) with NO campaign, simply through grass-roots write-in advocacy, it will send the message that the Dems have managed to alienate a significant portion of the base with centrist-calculated candidates. If we’re going to have an anti-woman (pro-corporate, anti-drug, anti-sex, pro-war) president, we might as well also deny Republicans the scapegoat of a Democrat on which to blame everything that’s going wrong and send a message to the party.

  • shirley-kailas

    Hallelujah, Johann. What a brilliant idea! This was definitely the tipping point for me as well as you might have guessed from reading my take on the situation. Though, I must admit my decision not to vote for him hasn’t been the easiest thing to swallow because of his opposition. I love this idea though :) I hope it was conveyed in the article that I think it is time we sent a strong message to Dems. I’d love to hear other ideas about how we can do this!

  • ljdavid56

    President Obama seems to have forgotten that 18 year olds can vote, and those under the age of 18, say those 17 year olds who supposedly aren’t mature enough to purchase and follow the directions of Plan B will be elegible to vote in 2012.  I wonder if they’ll want to vote for a man who allowed HHS to overrule the FDA and whose message towards them was paternalistic and condescending.