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Controlling Birth Control

By Reed E. McConnell

A few weeks ago, the Obama administration stepped up and permitted a policy change that had been a long time coming: they made Plan B—a type of emergency contraception—available over the counter to women under the age of 17. Plan B does not terminate already existing pregnancies, so the debate over its usage has been largely separate from the ongoing national debate over abortion; however, a move to increase its availability has still received fierce opposition from many camps, including that of the President. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already approved the medication for use by young women in 2011, but since then the Obama administration has blocked over-the-counter availability multiple times, giving a string of excuses that have been weak at best and outright offensive to young women at worst.

Due to the numerous obstacles this policy change has faced, this decision is being hailed as a hard-won victory for reproductive rights. However, the decision is not as exciting as it first appears. First of all, young women are only able to purchase the brand-name version of the pill over the counter. The significantly cheaper generic brand still requires a prescription, despite having the exact same chemical makeup as the brand-name version. Secondly, there are two types of Plan B—one that involves two pills, and one that involves only one pill. The two-pill type is cheaper, but was not approved by the government because they were concerned that young people would be unable to take each pill at the right time. However, recent research has shown that not only is it not necessary to take the pills at specific, separate times, but also that taking them simultaneously might be more effective. And even if this were not true, assuming that a young person (especially one who is resourceful enough to know about Plan B and purchase it themselves) would be unable to take two pills 12 hours apart is extremely patronizing.

So, we must ask ourselves, why is the government so concerned about young people buying pills that have been deemed safe by the FDA, that are not difficult to take by any measure, and that are not even dangerous if taken incorrectly? The answer clearly has to do with social control and the way that it is exercised over certain bodies.

When birth control was first introduced in the United States, spreading information about it was made illegal under the Comstock Laws, as topics related to reproduction were seen as “obscene”—so much so that they were put in the same category as pornography. Emma Goldman, a political activist who fought for women’s rights (among other things) in the early 20th century, was actually arrested in 1916 and sentenced to two weeks in jail for making information about birth control available to women.

So how is it that one of the least public and lewd things in the world—a quiet, personal choice about one’s body, something not even visible—came to be regarded as so obscene? Obscenity, in addition to being public, upsets the social order of things, and is fundamentally seen as not socially “appropriate.” With this in mind, women taking control of and knowing about their bodies at this point in history was indeed an obscene act, because such knowledge gave them a type of power over their bodies and families that they were not supposed to have. Those in power had a vested interest in ensuring that male control of women’s bodies was seen as natural, because this meant that men could maintain complete control over households.

As time has passed, it has become more and more socially acceptable for women to use birth control and to talk about reproduction and contraception in public forums. But as far as our attitudes toward reproductive rights have come, we have never lost the sense that those in power—generally wealthy white men—have some sort of natural say in determining the sort of control women have over their bodies. National debates over abortion, sex education in schools, and access to basic contraception are constant and ubiquitous, and all are fundamentally a question of the level of bodily agency the government is willing to give to mostly young, mostly female people. In these cases, gender and (young) age are seen as factors that automatically relinquish a level of bodily agency to a higher power.

When it comes to Plan B and the question of unintended pregnancy, the issue of agency takes on another dimension. We do not think that young people should be choosing to have sex; when they do, it is seen as a transgression that proves they are unfit to exercise control over their own bodies, and a reason for adults to seize control. We do not think that rape victims should exercise agency over themselves; our social narrative of “victimhood” requires helplessness. Essentially, we as a society believe that the sexually active status and victimhood of these people give us increased jurisdiction over their bodies, on top of the jurisdiction we are already afforded by their age and gender. And because these would be the two groups under 17 most likely to seek out Plan B, adult male control over the distribution of this drug is widely accepted as natural and even necessary.

It is time for a shift in our collective consciousness regarding women’s bodies. When President Obama suggested in 2011 that he did not want to see young women purchasing Plan B because he would not want his daughters to do so, the proper response should have been widespread horror that he felt entitled to control their bodies, rather than warmth at his being a “caring” father. From a very young age, women are taught that their bodies are not their own, that others have a legitimate say in how they cut their hair and how they do their makeup. And this lesson is inculcated in child after child until it becomes acceptable for congressmen to decide that a young woman desperately trying to avoid pregnancy hundreds of miles away should not be allowed access to the pills she needs, all for vague non-reasons that boil down to an extreme reluctance on their part to relinquish the misplaced, unearned control that, by a weird twist of fate, they have over her body.

Our young people deserve a very different sort of politics.

Reed E. McConnell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social anthropology concentrator in Quincy House.

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