December 14, 2011
Out of patience with Obama Administration betrayals on health issues, a coalition has launched a petition demanding an agenda that is fair to women.
It wasn’t the first time that President Barack Obama played to a right-wing constituency at the expense of women’s interests, but the reversal last week of an expected decision on emergency birth control provoked perhaps the most critical reaction so far toward the administration by women’s health advocates and feminists across the nation.
When Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, recommended that Plan B, a contraceptive pill that when taken immediately after unprotected sexual intercourse prevents most pregancies, be made available as an over-the-counter medication to all at risk for pregnancy, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took the unprecedented action of publicly overruling the FDA commissioner.
Sebelius’ reversal of Hamburg’s decision means that girls under the age of 17 will have to get a prescription for the drug, which for most girls means a visit to the family doctor—which means telling their parents. Those 17 and over will need to ask for the drug at the pharmacy counter. In a small town, that means telling an authority figure—one who may challenge your decision—that you might be pregnant.
Then Obama added insult to injury with a condescending statement about Sebelius’ maneuver. “As the father of two daughters,” the president said, “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.”
The Paternal Prerogative
The callousness of Obama’s statement hit hard. His characterization suggested that Hamburg, a medical doctor who had reviewed the science, had made a nonsensical determination (silly her!), even as he asserted a paternal prerogative over the bodily integrity of every girl.
It’s the classic conundrum of nearly every female person on the planet: before she is of the age of consent and majority, a girl is subject to conditions that will shape her life ever after in ways that are simply not experienced by boys and men. Though couched in the language of protection, Obama essentially claimed that it’s up to a girl’s father to determine whether or not she will bear a child.
No other explanation pans out. The drug used in Plan B is progesterone, which has been shown safe for use by girls of child-bearing capability as young as 11. Other drugs sold over the counter hold the potential of worse side-effects than Plan B, noted Dr. Susan Wood, a former FDA assistant commissioner in an interview with the New York Times.
Speaking of the pain reliever best known under the brand name Tylenol, Wood told the Times, “Acetaminophen can be fatal, but it’s available to everyone. So why are contraceptives singled out every single time when they’re actually far safer than what’s already out there?”
Woods resigned from the FDA in 2005 because of the Bush Administration’s politicization of Plan B availability.
In fact, right-wing tactics increasingly reveal it’s not just abortion that anti-choice forces oppose: contraceptives, too, are in their sights. To make the case against Plan B, many right-wing opponents falsely claim the drug to be an abortion pill although, if taken immediately after unprotected sex, it expels the egg before it is fertilized.
Politics and Pregnancy
Just like Obama’s previous betrayals on women’s health issues, this one had politics written all over it. No one believed him when he claimed to have had nothing to do with the decision. Some wondered aloud if the Plan B reversal wasn’t the price paid to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (who oppose all forms of birth control) for the provision of no-co-pay contraception in the president’s health-care plan. That plan, ironically, is where the president’s penchant for flicking away women’s health concerns first made its appearance during the negotiations surrounding the infamous Stupak amendment, which, while defeated, ultimately led to the virtual removal of abortion coverage from the American health-insurance system (starting in 2013). At the center of that battle were men in mitres (as the bishops’ ceremonial headgear is called).
And I’m sure that such voters as those in Ohio are on the president’s mind, as well, as he heads into the 2012 election. In Ohio, Catholics who oppose women’s rights can sometimes be convinced to vote Democratic for economic reasons, and Ohio is a make-or-break state on the electoral map.
The response from feminists came fast—and furious. Wrote Jodi L. Jacobson at RH Reality Check:
[A]pparently helping teens actually prevent unintended pregnancies isn’t an authentic a goal of this administration. Perhaps it was among the topics on which President Obama came to “understand the concerns of Catholics [read the 281 bishops],” as Archbishop Timothy Dolan assuredtheNewYorkTimes after his private meeting with the president.
At The Nation, Katha Pollitt took offense at the president’s statement:
Who died and made Barack Obama daddy in charge of teenage girls? Would he really rather that Sasha and Malia get pregnant rather than buy Plan B One-Step at CVS? And excuse me, Mr. President, thanks to your HHS, acquiring Plan B is prescription-only not just for 11-year-olds but for the 30 percent of teenage girls between 15 and 17 who are sexually active…
Redress of Greivances
Others decided to do more than vent, applying a more organized form of political pressure through a petition. US Women Connect, a national umbrella group of state coalitions that work on women’s social justice issues, launched a petition (which you can sign here) under the heading, “President Obama: We are BEYOND CRANKY!” The petition reads, in part:
It’s time to Occupy Ourselves. To say this isn’t okay. For young women, especially, to say, “You’re playing with our future and we’re not going to take it. Do not take our support for granted.”
Among the petition’s signers is Gloria Feldt, author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power (and a WMC board member). Feldt, an activist who works with US Women Connect, and former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, added this to the petition’s comments section:
I respect the president and the office he holds. But I have been increasingly concerned about the many ways this supposedly pro-choice White House has been going back on campaign promises to protect women’s reproductive rights, health, and justice….We deserve better than we’re getting but politicians can only do the right thing if we make it impossible for them to do otherwise…
Others advocate more radical action than a petition.
Linda Hirshman, author of the forthcoming book, Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (HarperCollins), suggests the women’s movement take a page out of the movement for LGBT rights.
“We already know how the LGBT community deals with the president when he sells their interests out because of his own political calculation,” Hirshman wrote me in an e-mail exchange. “They pound him relentlessly and effectively, using the trifecta of political techniques: reveal what your adversary is really doing; invoke the assumptions of our secular, democratic republic; and assert the morality of your cause.”
As an example of the movement’s success, she notes how gay activists got the administration to decline to defend the Defense of Marriage Act—which denies same-sex couples the spousal benefits afforded those in heterosexual marriages—before the federal courts, even though it is customary for the Justice Department to defend laws passed by Congress. Taking a cue from the slogan of the early gay-rights movement (“Gay is good”), Hirshman suggests adopting a similarly effective slogan: “Teenage Pregnancies Are Not Good.”
The question remains whether Obama’s betrayal on this critical area of women’s health will affect his chances at the ballot box. Enthusiasm for the president among young people—a critical constituency for him in 2008—is already dampening. Women, too, could be turned off by the calculations of the president at the expense of their daughters and themselves. And in what is expected to be a closely contested race, the president can’t afford to have a single voter decide to sit this one out.
Many have said that women provided the president with his 2008 margin of victory. Most weren’t looking for a reward; they were just counting on him to keep his promises and defend their rights. Some are still waiting. Others may have already given up.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.
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