The Daughter Problem: Obama and Teen Girl Sex Panic

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Photo: Getty

Over-the-counter emergency contraception has just survived a fourteen-year slog through the federal bureaucracy, with the Justice Department announcing this week that it will finally allow people of all ages to purchase the pill without a prescription. Obama backed down when it looked like a lawsuit over the age restriction would make it all the way to the Supreme Court. Apparently, after years of citing paternal concerns as the reason his administration has ignored the recommendations of doctors and lawyers, he just doesn’t want to continue to have this fight in public.

In April, when Obama became the first sitting president to speak at Planned Parenthood’s national conference, PPFA president Cecile Richards introduced him by ticking off his long list of pro-choice legislative victories. And then, almost as a bonus, she added, “So, um, okay, we know the president believes in strong women — heck, he married Michelle Obama, right? But the wonderful thing is, together the president and the first lady are raising these two extraordinary daughters, Sasha and Malia, and standing up for them and all of our daughters, to make sure that they have every opportunity in the world.”

It didn’t seem to matter anymore that, two years prior to that, Obama had invoked his daughters in a very different context. When reporters asked him why he was opposed to making the morning-after pill available to all ages without a prescription, he replied, "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." If you’re confused about why, when it comes to this particular issue, an avowedly pro-choice president sounds like a Bible Belt patriarch, join the club. And when it comes to the sexuality of teen girls, Obama’s talking points have been nearly identical to those of his conservative predecessor: Father knows best.

Obama’s protective impulse runs counter to oft-cited research by Yale economist Ebonya Washington, who found in 2007 that the more daughters a politician has, the more likely he or she is to vote with women’s interests in mind — particularly on reproductive-rights issues. But apparently that rule doesn't apply when the daughter is still a teenager and the question is whether she can access contraception on her own, without involving a parent or doctor. Republicans get a bad rap for disregarding science about touchy social issues, but Obama’s attitude shows that the teen-girl sex panic afflicts liberals as much as conservatives.

The fact that “every woman is somebody’s daughter” has been used by advocacy groups to argue against sex trafficking and abuse. So, too, when it comes to reproductive rights. Obama may be setting policies based on his preteen daughters, but all women have to live with the consequences. The abortion and contraception restrictions that are applied to teenagers often have a chilling effect on what services adult women — particularly the most vulnerable, the poorest, those in abusive situations — are able to access, too. Over-the-counter Plan B is a perfect example: Because a prescription is required if you’re under 18, the pill is still behind the pharmacy counter, not stocked on regular drugstore shelves. Even though adult women don’t need a prescription, they’ve still got to go through a pharmacist — which can be a real deterrent in small or socially conservative towns. And in most places, the pharmacy is open shorter hours than the rest of the store. The teen restriction means all women must wait until the counter is open to obtain the morning-after pill. Given that time is of the essence — the pill decreases in effectiveness the longer you wait to take it after unprotected sex — this is no small matter.

Yet, teen daughters — even as symbols, rather than those needing access to the medication themselves — have been consistently invoked to impede Plan B’s path from the research lab to drugstore shelves. A 2004 FDA memo expressed concern that making the morning-after pill available without a prescription “would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B." Despite the ever-present danger of teen orgies, thanks to a lawsuit, it was finally approved for over-the-counter purchase in 2006. To quell the concerns of social and sexual conservatives, Bush added a caveat: “I believe that Plan B ... ought to require a prescription for minors. That's what I believe.” The FDA applied this restriction, despite the fact that study after study has deemed the pill just as safe for minors as it is for adult women. And despite the fact that minors don’t need a prescription to purchase other drugs like Advil or diet pills or caffeine pills — all of which can have an adverse effect if misused or abused.

Five years later, despite millions of dollars in morning-after pill sales to those over age 18, our social fabric had yet to completely unravel. So the FDA approved the pill for over-the-counter sale to minors, too — but Obama’s Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius intervened to prevent that from happening. In a White House press conference, a reporter asked Obama “if politics trumps science in this case.” That’s when Obama trotted out his daughters. Well, not literally onstage. But, he began, “as the father of two daughters,” and continued, “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.”

In April, a judge ordered the Obama administration to lift the morning-after-pill age restriction, deeming Sebelius’s decision “politically motivated, scientifically unjustified, and contrary to agency precedent.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated Obama’s 2011 talking point on the age restriction: “He believed it was a common-sense approach when it comes to Plan B and its availability over the counter to girls under, I believe, 17, and he believed that was a sensible approach.”

But is it really more sensible to make sexually active teenagers jump through so many hoops to protect themselves? As a friend of mine, the parent of a 15-year-old girl, told me, “I cling to the delusion that my kid will never be the one who needs it and that she'd never have sex without talking to me first, but deep down I know that she absolutely keeps things from me.” To her, it’s a comfort to know that even if her daughter had unprotected sex, she could “just as sneakily” take substantial precautions. “I’m all for responsible rebellion,” she added. And it’s hard to imagine Obama wouldn’t want the same for his daughters.