NPR logo Obama Left Good Argument For Plan B Contraceptive Decision Out In Cold

Obama Left Good Argument For Plan B Contraceptive Decision Out In Cold

Plan B, One-Step in photo provided by Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc. Anonymous/AP hide caption

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Plan B, One-Step in photo provided by Barr Pharmaceuticals Inc.


In defending Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' decision to countermand for now the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the Plan B morning-after pill for over-the-counter sale to minors, President Obama gave an explanation that left many critics unsatisfied.

At a Thursday news conference, Obama said:

"I will say this, as the father of two daughters. 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. 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 go into a drugstore, should be able — alongside bubble gum or batteries — be able to buy a medication that potentially, if not used properly, could end up having an adverse effect. And I think most parents would probably feel the same way."

Leave aside the disturbing image of retailers selling the emergency contraceptive next to batteries and gum. Also, let's not dig too far into the fallacy that adults can ever have confidence that 10- or 11-year olds will ever use products exactly how their manufacturers meant. That even includes the aforementioned batteries and gum. Indeed, it's a test not even many adults can meet.

Also, let's not consider that even medications when used properly can have unforeseen effects in certain people.

One patently obvious problem with the president's explanation is that if you follow his logic, it appears he is saying that if Sebelius had been persuaded 10-year olds could properly follow instructions, the administration would have been OK with the OTC sales to pre-adolescents.

Really? And how could that outcome not bother the father of two daughters who happens to be president?

This helps explain why the president left his critics on Plan B, including some liberals, suspecting the decision was more about the nation being within a year of a general election in which the president faces what at this point appears to be a tough battle for re-election.

If the administration had approved the OTC sale of the emergency contraceptive to minors, that would have obviously left Obama vulnerable to Republican charges that he was encouraging young teens to have sex or abortions since one way the drug works is by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting.

Such arguments could certainly help move some voters away from the president in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, Colorado and Virginia. It could have hurt him further with Catholic voters, many of whom are Latino.

So you don't have to work very hard to come up with a political motivation for the decision which, of course, the administration denies.

But there was at least one stronger argument than the one Obama made for his administration's decision that deals with notion of 10-year olds purchasing the morning after pill. It comes from Michael Tomasky, writing in The Daily Beast.

Tomasky argues persuasively that there were legitimate reasons parents might not want their minor children having easy access to the morning-after pill.

An excerpt:

"But it seems to me that there is a fair issue here, and it has to do with parents having a right to know about and be involved in what their kids are up to. You simply don't have to be a right-winger to have concerns about your 14- or 15-year-old daughter having easy access to such a pill...

... In an ideal world, parents would rationally support the idea of their daughters having every means available to them to correct an error (or, obviously, to override a violation) that happened a day or two prior. But parents don't always think rationally about these things. That makes these issues sensitive by definition, and it's hardly illegitimate for a government to take such matters into consideration. I'd have had more respect for Kathleen Sibelius in this situation if, instead of that blather about 11-year-old girls not being able to follow instructions and take the pill properly, she'd just said: "Look, I respect the science, but this raises ethical and moral questions about what is the proper age for access to emergency contraception, in addition to the scientific ones. And that's a public debate we ought to have more of before we pull this trigger."

That really does seem like the killer argument. Who could be against that kind of debate?