Political Animal


May 05, 2013 8:33 AM How wrong is Kathleen Parker about Plan B birth control? Let me count the ways!

By Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Parker’s column in today’s Washington Post, which is about over-the-counter sales of Plan B birth control, is a small masterpiece of sophistry. It’s a virtual greatest hits collection of all those arguments by the anti-birth control reactionaries that sound superficially compelling, but immediately fall apart the second you hold them up to the light of day. Let’s take a look at her BS claims one at a time:

1. First off, there’s the classic “My kid can’t even get aspirin from the school nurse without a permission slip, so birth control without my say? Hells to the no!” Parker writes:

A 15-year-old can’t get Tylenol at school without parental permission, but we have no hesitation about children taking a far more serious drug without oversight?

There are several issues here. First of all, we’re not talking about the ability of a minor to get Plan B at school; we’re talking about her ability to buy it over the counter at a drug store — just as she can freely buy Tylenol.

Secondly, there’s the implication that Plan B is a more dangerous drug than Tylenol. But it’s not; after years of rigorous scientific testing, researchers have found it to be perfectly safe for over-the-counter use. And given that the cost of a single dose is at least $35, ODs are unlikely.

Thirdly — come to think of it, isn’t the fact that kids can’t get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental involvement kind of whack?

2. Next we come to Parker’s claim that the Obama administration’s decision to limit the sale of Plan B to those 15 and older has no effect whatsoever on the accessibility of the drug to women in general:

Yet, repeatedly in the past several days, we’ve heard the argument that any interference with the over-the-counter sale of Plan B to any female of any age is blocking a woman’s right to self-determination.

Clearly, Parker does not really understand how this policy will work — or maybe she does but is disingenuously pretending not to. Whatever the case, here’s the thing: once you set an age limit and start requiring proof of age, you’re creating a substantial obstacle for all women. Poor women and very young women are far less likely to have a photo ID with proof of age than are their older, wealthier counterparts. Only something like one-third of Americans hold passports, and the percentage of minors with passports is surely far lower than that (I could not find statistics that broke down passport ownership by age). And these days, far fewer teens are getting their drivers’ licenses.

The other problem with an age limit is that puts a lot of power in the hands of individual check-out clerks. Especially in rural, conservative areas, this is likely to be a serious issue. Pharmacists who, for religious reasons, refuse to dispense birth control are a growing problem. Some drug store clerks are inevitably going to act like jackasses and hassle women buying Plan B. We will dramatically diminish their ability to do so if we take away their power to demand proof of ID.

3. In classic wingnut fashion, Parker seeks to distract her readers by focusing their attention on vague abstractions rather than unlovely specifics:

To say that this controversy is strictly political is no argument against debate. Politics is the debate about the role of government in our lives. And the debate about Plan B is fundamentally about whether government or parents have ultimate authority over their children’s well-being.

Oh, I see! We’re just having a high-minded debate about the “proper role of government” here. Except that we aren’t: the conflict here isn’t parents vs. the government, it’s parents vs. the reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy of their daughters. Be that as it may, Parker is trying to make this about “the big bad government” vs. the rights of individual parents — who always, of course, have their daughter’s best interests at heart, and would never, ever physically or emotionally abuse her if she asked her parents’ permission to go on birth control. Forget about the specter of a terrified 12-year old girl who’s faced with the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy, who fears that her life may be ruined, and who then must grapple with the full array of health complications that pregnancy and birth entails.

It’s well worth mentioning here that many young girls become pregnant from sexual relationships that are not exactly what most of us would consider to be consensual. Studies show that teens are far more likely to become pregnant if their sex partner is older. For example, the pregnancy rate for girls age 15 to 17 is 3.7 times greater if their partner is six or more years older than they are, vs. two years older. Many teen pregnancies result from statutory rape, incest, or other abusive relationships. But hey, let’s just compound the trauma by denying these little sluts birth control and forcing them to deal with an unwanted pregnancy!

4. Another problem with Parker’s argument her blanket refusal to look at the alternative — i.e., what will happen if young girls are denied access to birth control. The debate here is not whether, or at what age, it’s okay for young girls to become sexually active. We’re talking about their right to prevent pregnancy once they do start having sex. Parker blithely assumes that, while young teens are not mature enough to pop a single pill within 72 hours of intercourse, they are mature enough to experience a full-term pregnancy, with all the life-changing, potentially traumatic physical and mental health consequences that entails. Excuse me, but WTF? Even if we restrict ourselves to the woman’s physical health alone, the risks of pregnancy and giving birth are far more serious than any of the very mild risks associated with Plan B.

But Parker’s piece relies on emotionalism rather than science. She resolutely refuses to trouble her beautiful mind with the facts.

5. And speaking of emotionalism: finally, there’s this — Parker pulls out her ace in the hole, and plays the parent card:

Question 2: Do you think that girls as young as 11 or 12 should be able to buy the morning-after pill without any adult supervision? Didn’t think so.
Question 3: If you answered yes to Question 2, are you a parent? Didn’t think so.

Sorry, but I call BS on this. First of all, having a pregnant, underaged daughter on their hands is among many parents’ worst nightmares. Many would vastly prefer that their daughter had ready access to birth control, as opposed to the alternatives of supporting her decision to get an abortion, or the decision to carry a pregnancy to term, and (as usually happens in such cases) keep the baby. With birth control, there are far fewer agonizing decisions and is far less pain all around — let alone the fact that much of the responsibility for raising a baby born to a very young girl would inevitably fall on the shoulders of her parents.

Secondly, if parents really would prefer that their daughter be denied birth control, so what? Sorry mates, but it’s not your body and it’s not your decision. Legally mandated forced pregnancy — which is basically what you get when birth control options are shut down — is incompatible with human liberty and respect for the individual. Even children have some basic rights, and the right to refuse the physical and emotional burdens of pregnancy damn well ought to be one of them.

Finally, the other huge problem of playing the parent card is the dubious assumption that mommy and daddy can always see things more clearly and that they inevitably know what’s best for their little darling. But again, this is bogus. For one thing, daddy dearest or some other beloved male relative or stepfather may be the party guilty of raping and knocking up the daughter in the first place.

Beyond that, there’s the problem that many parents have bizarre, antiquated patriarchal notions about their daughters’ sexuality. You’d think that in 2013, parents would be less irrational and hysterically overprotective about these things than they were in the past, but in many ways they’re actually worse. The Christian right, with their chastity balls and virginity pledges, is one version of it; endlessly anxious, over-controlling helicopter parents are the bourgeois secular equivalent.

So no, I don’t think that father — or mother — necessarily knows best. Even if they’re not abusive, mom and dad may still have some pretty deranged notions about their daughter’s sexuality and some pretty serious control issues.

In her column, Kathleen Parker makes lots of reasonable-sounding noises. She doesn’t slut-shame, nor she doesn’t oppose Plan B outright, and she doesn’t invoke the baby Jesus. She poses the question,”Even if we would prefer that girls not be sexually active so early in life, wouldn’t we rather they block a pregnancy before it happens than wait and face the worse prospect of abortion?” — and admits that it is “legitimate” to ask it.

Parker’s shtick, like David Brooks’, is that she’s the “reasonable,” respectable conservative. And yet, like Brooks, she speaks dismissively of any science that doesn’t lend support to her ideology, and she prefers to couch her arguments in glittering abstractions, rather than the difficult, gritty realities of many Americans’ lives. In this column, the harsh reality she’s in denial about is the trauma of a teen, or even pre-teen, girl facing an unwanted pregnancy; in others, she’s ignored the tragedy of gun violence and the poor, the sick, and the elderly who are the victims of vicious G.O.P. budget cuts. Strangely enough, for all her faux centrism, Parker, like Brooks, nearly always toes the hack G.O.P. line on any given subject. I’d respect her a lot more if she gave up the ghost and openly embraced her inner wingnut. But until she does that, an honest political debate with her and her center-right concern troll ilk (Brooks etc.) is not possible. The good faith that is a necessary prerequisite for such a debate is sorely lacking here.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Nancy Rosenberg on May 05, 2013 11:52 AM:

    I couldn't have more effectively refuted Parker's specious arguments against available birth for all females who are biologically capable of pregnancy. Thank you!

  • martin on May 05, 2013 12:08 PM:

    Check out how it is going down in Alabama, in this incredibly friendly to anti-sex crowd TV report. They couldn't quite get anyone to say God Told Me Not To Sell It, but they got damn close.


    illogis quickly adds Captcha

  • Pat on May 05, 2013 12:22 PM:

    I like a lot of your writing, but I take issue with your response to point #5. While you may not be wrong, I think that it might make more sense to point out her lack of logic. My 11 year old daughter was not out shopping at the drugstore without my supervision. In fact, we knew where she was at all times, and we knew who she was with. Most parents can say the same.

    It's not like Kathy Sebelius is going to find your daughter and offer her Plan B so that she doesn't fear getting pregnant. Be a good parent and stay involved with their lives.

  • Jane Nelson on May 05, 2013 12:36 PM:

    What an amazingly mature writing. You need to write more about all these issues that the right wingers are trying to do to our rights. Thanks for making this issue so clear.Keep it up.

  • emjayay on May 05, 2013 12:36 PM:

    "come to think of it, isnít the fact that kids canít get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental involvement kind of whack?"

    I'm guessing that there are medical reasons why some people should not take either Tyenol and/or asprin and if the school, a public institution, gave them out to a minor in their care without parental approval the school would be legally responsible. Or maybe a faith-healer or Christian Scientist would freak out and sue.

  • longchamps beaumont on May 05, 2013 12:39 PM:

    Let's not forget that Kathleen Parker's chief claim to fame is being a big-boobed blonde.

  • Upper West on May 05, 2013 12:54 PM:

    Don't forget -- it's faux centrist crap like this that won a Pulitzer for Parker. Of course this year they gave a Pulitzer to WSJ Editorial writer Bret Stephens, for his "contrarian" views, like "Obama spent his first term coddling our enemies" or "I just think the president isn't very bright" or Global warming is the "flavor of the decade."

  • DRF on May 05, 2013 12:54 PM:

    Picking up on Pat's comment, I think that Geier is focusing on the wrong argument on No. 5. No I wouldn't have wanted my young daughter to buy the morning-after pill without parental involvement; I would have wanted her to come to her parents. But I would have wanted her to have the right to do so. Or, to put it another way--one which conservatives ought to be able to appreciate--I don't want the Government to make that decision and to limit my family members' options. I wouldn't want my young children walking home alone at night because it's not safe, but the Government doesn't prohibit it.

    I would add that Parker is also wrong on No. 3 in characterizing the issue as to whether the government or the parents have ultimate authority over the child's well-being. Allowing purchase of the pill by children is not an exercise of governmental authority; to the contrary, it's the government's refusal to exercise authority and to leave this to the parent and child. I might also mention that the government does often exercise authority with respect to matters that directly affect the child's well-being: the requirement that children wear seat belts in cars, the prohibition of sales of alcohol and cigarettes to minors, etc. I suspect that Parker has no issue with these actual exercises of governmental authority.

  • Steve on May 05, 2013 12:59 PM:

    @longchamps beaumont: Your comment is irrelevant and offensive.

    Regarding point 3, I find the dissonance to be nearly deafening: Ms Parker seems to want government out of our lives except when she wants it in our lives -- or, I should say, in the lives of women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. Shouldn't she be favoring unrestricted availability of Plan B on a freedom of choice basis?

    Or is that too logically consistent?

  • John M. Burt on May 05, 2013 1:17 PM:

    Question 2: Yes.
    Question 3: Yes, two girls and three boys.

  • low-tech cyclist on May 05, 2013 1:23 PM:

    As a father, my responsibility to my son is quite simple in principle: to see that he enters adulthood as ready as reasonably possible to make his own way in the world.

    I don't have a daughter, but if I did, the only thing that would change in that parental job description would be the pronouns.

    Now: if I had a daughter, I'm sure I'd want to preserve the illusion of her chastity in my mind as long as possible. But I would still have this overarching responsibility. And I know that she would be greatly hindered and burdened in making her own way in the world if she became a mother before she became an adult.

    Accordingly, I would want her to use birth control if the need arose, and I would want it to be strictly her choice of whether to seek my blessing in doing so. And the same thing would apply to terminating a pregnancy if the necessity arose.

    So I join Kathleen in calling BS on the parent card. Sure, we fathers don't want to think about our little angel f***ing: that's just the way we are. (I won't attempt to speak for the moms out there.) But we have this responsibility that as parents, we are called to be true to. And that's bigger than our squeamishness.

  • apetra on May 05, 2013 1:29 PM:

    boys and young men are buying these pills, giving them to young girls for hookup sex as an "alternative" to condoms.

  • biggerbox on May 05, 2013 1:32 PM:

    Parker is a disingenuous flack who makes bad arguments, and spending too long critiquing her begins to resemble the classic xkcd comic here: http://xkcd.com/386/ .

    However, you should know that because of the due to concerns of Reye's syndrome, there are perfectly good reasons to not give children or teens aspirin. And it isn't too hard to think of reasons why it is reasonable to have parents grant permission before schools start dispensing medications to their children. The real flaw in Parker's argument is that we're talking about buying pills at the drug store, not having a school official administer them.

    Parker also invites ridicule for the false dichotomy between parents and government. We commonly accept that parents are the prime authority, but that doesn't mean that we don't have laws about child seats in cars, or alcohol sales, or truancy. Parents AND government both have a say in how we raise our children. Duh.

    There's a whole "closing the barn door after the horse has bolted" aspect to the Plan B arguments that I find annoying. By the time the kid needs Plan B, the parental involvement that should have been happening has already failed. (Assuming, of course, that the father or step-dad isn't the one responsible for the potential pregnancy in the first place.) Is Parker suggesting that the "reasonable" parents she imagines would NOT want their underage daughter to get Plan B, and instead go through a potentially disastrous pregnancy? Really?

  • Vail Beach on May 05, 2013 1:32 PM:

    While I probably agree more than disagree with your bottom line here, you are a very childish and ignorant writer who over-relies on ad hominem argument and asinine name-calling. It is your method of argument that makes "honest debate" impossible, because your starting position is, anyone who disagrees with you is a "wingnut," who, are itching invoke "the baby Jesus" to counter your superior logic. Your assumption that right-leaning centrists are mere "concern trolls" standing in the way of your idea of progress demonstrates that you have grown up in a very small ideological bubble and are not aware that people who are really as smart and compassionate as you mistakenly think you are can actually disagree with you.

    I assume from your arrogant positioning that you spend a good deal of time congratulating yourself and your tiny strip of ideologically-acceptable hacks of "embracing diversity." Before you pat yourself on the back again, you might want to review this incredibly intolerant column.

  • sgetti on May 05, 2013 1:49 PM:

    Two thoughts: how many teens and even pre-teens know or understand Plan B as to how it works, when it is used and how to get it? Heck, what about the general population of adults and their current understanding?

    Second: as to the complaints that the Obama administration put an age limit on OTC access - from a government vs parental control, the ethical view may be more complicated in that requiring those unable to access Plan B might force parents to get involved right away. No doubt a proof of age requirement is regressive but removing it also reduces a mechanism to get parents involved. This pill may take care of the immediate situation but not the long term issues underlying why it was needed in the first place. The President will not kowtow to the rigid right but he will not give liberals a free pass either.

  • jheartney on May 05, 2013 1:51 PM:

    Shorter Vail Beach:

    "Name-calling is a terrible way to debate, you childish, ignorant hack!"

  • jheartney on May 05, 2013 1:57 PM:

    emjayjay and biggerbox are right about why schools won't dispense aspirin without parental approval. In our case it's sometimes been a PITA (for our daughter who needs allergy meds on a field trip) but I can see why they do it.

    By the way, speaking as a parent of a young teen girl, I'm all for over-the-counter Plan B.

  • JCR on May 05, 2013 2:19 PM:

    I have a hard time imagining boys having enough moxey or financial generosity to buy pills for the girls they want to "hook up" with, so I'm not buying your theory. However, if they're willing to take more responsibility for their share of the birth control, then I'm fine with that (not that plan b is an ideal form of birth control). It's not like they're offering the girls Spanish Fly. Grow up.

  • Pat on May 05, 2013 2:27 PM:

    I believe that a lot of the pearls clutching that goes on regarding high school students and birth control has deep racist and classist roots. In families where both parents have to work long hours at low-paying jobs, teens escape supervision; where one parent works and the other has the luxury to stay home, supervision can be more constant. Teens who escape supervision find it easier to get time for experimenting with sex. Teens with a grinding schedule, including sports and other extracurricular activities, not so much. If birth control is readily available, it's not a problem.

    But if you have a baby, it's damned hard to get to college. One less competitor for the priviledged.

  • fostert on May 05, 2013 3:00 PM:

    On issue 5, this happened once in my family. My cousin got pregnant in college. The first person she called was her sister. And they had a discussion about how to tell mom. There was no 'if' about it. This was obviously a serious issue and mom should know. There was no Plan B back then, but if there were, she'd have told her mom anyway. If the relationship between a daughter and her parents is healthy, the point is moot. And if it's not healthy, then maybe the parents shouldn't know anyway.

  • arkie on May 05, 2013 3:21 PM:

    A 13 year old can buy Midol OTC but not Plan B.

    Midol belongs to the family of drugs (NSAIDS) which kill 17,000 Americans each year.

    Plan B warning label: "Side effects may include changes in your period, nausea, lower abdominal pain, fatigue, headache, and dizziness."

    Midol (naproxen) warning label:

    Allergy alert: Naproxen sodium may cause a severe allergic reaction, especially in people allergic to aspirin. Symptoms may include:

    facial swelling
    asthma (wheezing)
    skin reddening

    If an allergic reaction occurs, stop use and seek medical help right away.

    Stomach bleeding warning: This product contains an NSAID, which may cause stomach bleeding. The chance is higher if you:

    are age 60 or older
    have had stomach ulcers or bleeding problems
    take a blood thinning (anticoagulant) or steroid drug
    take other drugs containing prescription or nonprescription NSAIDs (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or others)
    have 3 or more alcoholic drinks every day while using this product
    take more or for a longer time than directed

  • martin on May 05, 2013 3:31 PM:

    Let us also point out that if HS Girls are getting pregnant, they are most likely not having safe sex, which is a serious problem that really needs to be addressed.

  • parsimon on May 05, 2013 4:07 PM:

    First of all, having a pregnant, underaged daughter on their hands is among many parentsí worst nightmares. Many would vastly prefer that their daughter had ready access to birth control

    I haven't read the thread, so perhaps this has been mentioned, but Parker was on the Chris Matthews show today, this topic came up, and when other panelists voiced exactly the quoted sentiment (many parents would rather their young daughter be able to head off a potential pregnancy), Parker blurted out, "I find that appalling."

    She's all about parental authority; her response to Matthews' observation that needing to tell your parents if you've been sexually active is actually off-putting and ultimately detrimental for teens, was to clam up. She really doesn't have an answer.

  • bluespapa on May 05, 2013 4:34 PM:

    Only in this case, she WANTS big bad government to play nanny.

  • Bob P on May 05, 2013 8:02 PM:

    "The other problem with an age limit is that puts a lot of power in the hands of individual check-out clerks. Especially in rural, conservative areas, this is likely to be a serious issue. Pharmacists who, for religious reasons, refuse to dispense birth control is a growing problem. Some drug store clerks are inevitably going to act like jackasses and hassle women buying Plan B. We will dramatically diminish their ability to do so if we take away their power to demand proof of ID."

    My, you have a splendid imagination. Your paranoia is showing.

  • CDW on May 05, 2013 8:06 PM:

    I disagree with the author. There are plenty of reasons not to want your daughter to have plan b readily available over the counter. First of all, if a girl is having unprotected sex, there are STDs to be considered, most worrisome HIV, of course. A mature responsible person should be aware of what's going on. A 15 year old is simply not mature enough to make this kind of decision alone. It could be that the girl was forced to have sex and, once again, a mature responsible person should be aware of what happened. If the girl is being taken advantage of, she could get pregnant more than once.

  • Magatha on May 05, 2013 10:55 PM:

    In regard to to the concerns about power in the hands of individual check-out clerks, let me just say that approximately a million years ago when I was working as a pharmacy clerk in a big chain store, we used to be required to keep condoms behind the counter. That meant that people had to ask for them, and it was supposed to mean that I would check ID or in some other way inquire about age, except that I never ever did that. I did not care why they wanted the condoms. Maybe they wanted to engage in a particularly fierce water balloon war. I did not care. If they asked for them, they got them.

    I don't know what the rules are for Plan B. If they are like the Sudafed rules - you need to sign a book, produce ID, record your address, etc. - it might be harder for a clerk to exercise some discretion. But I'd still be inclined to, and I wouldn't be alone. Also? Good bit of writing. Thanks.

  • Texas Aggie on May 06, 2013 12:15 AM:

    One point of fact:

    Tylenol is a heck of a lot more toxic than plan B. Tylenol (acetaminophen) will cause liver damage to the point of destroying the liver completely when overdosed or when a person is already suffering from liver damage. Aspirin from the school nurse without parental permission is ok, but tylenol certainly is not.

  • paul on May 06, 2013 11:47 AM:

    I notice a lot of people in this thread translating their sense of how young teenage women "should" behave with their parents into a belief about how the law should be. There's a big difference between "you really should tell your parents" and "if you don't tell your parents, either you get pregnant or someone who helps you faces a risk of jail time."

  • beejeez on May 06, 2013 12:16 PM:

    There are plenty of things to mock the Kathleen Parkers of the world about, Ms. Geier, but I don't think we need to be nasty about this one. It's unfair to suggest that this is a clearly one-sided issue. Even parents who are pro-choice even for all fertile young women can still be legitimately apprehensive about granting the youngest ones access to birth control without parental knowledge.

    You note several worst-case scenarios of restrictive Plan B conditions (incest, religious nuttery), and they are horrifying. But you have to balance them against how many more bad scenarios may be enabled by expanding unfettered access to Plan B to young teens. As CDW points out, it's not just about controlling your daughters' sex drives; it's about all-too-human parents trying to make sure their young daughters aren't endangering themselves physically and emotionally with unprotected sex.

    That's not to say lowering the age of access to Plan B may not be the best of several bad options, and you make a strong argument for it. But worrying about whether we wouldn't be doing more harm than good to young women doesn't make you a fascist.