After a judge recently overruled the decision to put age limits on the morning after pill, President Barack Obama defended the decision by calling age restrictions “common sense.” In reality, age restrictions defy common sense, and more importantly, science. Scientists and medical professionals at the Food and Drug Administration, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Medical Association and other groups support access to birth control without age restrictions.
The president has made major contributions to women’s reproductive rights. At the same time he has taken two steps back at the behest of religious authorities and conservatives, both of whom have demonstrated a failure to understand basic biological functions of the female body, which should preclude them from all discussions of reproductive health.
A little more than a month ago, the president announced that religious employers are no longer mandated to cover contraception under the Affordable Care Act. Now the president continues to support Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to keep age restrictions on the morning after pill, a young woman’s last-ditch effort to prevent pregnancy when she does not have access to monthly birth control pills or an IUD.
Twice, the president could have said no to conservatives, political or ecclesiastical, and let access to birth control and emergency contraception expand. His choice is curious, since, during the election, he boldly embraced controversial issues such as reproductive rights and gay marriage, issues that were once defined by the conservative narrative. In the campaign’s Life of Julia slideshow, Julia is shown entering a pharmacy where she has access to family planning methods. The depiction of a young woman buying birth control as normal and acceptable would appear to be a great step forward for young women. It is interesting, however, that the slideshow doesn’t get into family planning until age 27.
I am sure the White House staff knows that most women have sex and therefore need birth control before the reproductively mature age of 27. On average, women lose their virginity at age 17. The ability to talk about young women having sex, however, is still fraught with misplaced concern; concern rooted in a culture that is scared of women’s sexuality.
The president maintains that children as young as 11 years-old could take the morning after pill and experience health problems. Even if we were to assume that 11 year-olds were sexually active, very few of them are likely to get pregnant. According to a study by Pediatrics, 0.6 percent of 10 year-olds 1.1 percent of 11 year-olds and 2.4 percent of 12 year-olds have engaged in sex. The argument over 11 year-old expectant mothers doesn’t even begin to address why the age limit wasn’t set at a younger age, such as 15 years-old or 16 years-old. According to a 2007 study by the Center for Disease Control, 16 percent of all adults surveyed lost their virginity before the age of 15. It is a minority but it is high enough to raise concern over limits on emergency contraception, especially when 49% of all American pregnancies are unplanned. The facts also negate the conservative argument that emergency contraception will encourage young people to have unprotected sex and spread diseases. Condom use was highest among adolescents, not adults, at 70 to 80 percent, according to a 2010 Indiana University study on sexual behavior.
Twice, the president has limited birth control access at a time when other countries, both developed and underdeveloped, are expanding access. The U.S. should be leading that effort, as one of the most developed nations in the world, led by a Democratic president, who still has political capital early in his second term in office.
Countries such as the U.K., Spain and France have had superior birth control coverage for many years. Birth control in the U.K. is available for free under the National Health Service and Spain provides family planning services as part of the Spanish National Health Care system. In France, the National Assembly recently passed a bill as part of the Social Security budget that would allow young women aged 15 to 18 to access free birth control as well as cover the entire cost of an abortion for all women.
Even the Philippines, which has a historically religious and conservative culture that dissuades recreational sex, has made great strides in access to birth control. In December, the Philippine Congress passed a bill that would override the ban on contraceptives in public health clinics, make sex education mandatory and require hospitals to provide post-abortion care. The Catholic Church fiercely opposed the bill.
Kristine Relojo, a 21 year-old Filipino sophomore law student, said she has observed that many Filipino women have a lack of awareness of birth control methods, keeping them impoverished. The culture has also held them back from making informed family planning decisions.
“This could also change the stereotype of Filipino women as 'ilaw ng tahanan,' literally ‘light of the home,’ will no longer be,” Relojo said. “The reproductive health law is a huge deal because it’s kind of a formal recognition and institutionalization of the equality of men and women.”
If a country as steeped in religious tradition as the Philippines can produce a decisive victory for reproductive rights, and stand up to the Catholic Church, there is no reason why the United States, a developed country with a larger female workforce, can’t accomplish universal birth control without age restrictions.
In Judge Edward Korman’s opinion, he wrote that the restrictions were “…arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.” A restriction that flies in the face of the health community’s general consensus, basic national statistics and global social trends is the very opposite of “common sense.” Hopefully the president will come to this realization soon.