by Anya Josephs
There’s a medicine that, in half a century of use, has been linked to a grand total of zero deaths or serious complications. It’s safer than aspirin. Physicians willingly admit that their advice is not needed for it to be taken correctly. The largest organization of pediatricians in the nation is urging its members to pre-write prescriptions for patients who may need it, because it’s so safe they believe everyone should have access without visiting a doctor.
This medicine is often desperately needed. It must be taken within a specific 120 hour period in order to be effective. It prevents a condition that can be devastating to the people it affects, especially young people, who are more likely to develop depression, drop out of school, and even die. Furthermore, if young people can’t get this medicine when they need it, they are more likely to spend their lives in poverty, never marry, and have their kids end up in jail.
So why has the supposedly progressive Obama administration repeatedly spoken out against making this medicine available over-the-counter to young people, even after a federal judge ruled that girls under seventeen must be given access to this medicine? Why would the president go against all scientific evidence and say that the medicine “could be dangerous if misused”?
Because the medicine is emergency contraception, the medical condition it treats is pregnancy, and Americans are terrified of teenage girls being in control of their own sexuality.
Saying that girls can’t take a medication safely is patronizing and inaccurate: the research overwhelmingly proves that teens can safely take this medicine without a doctor’s supervision. The real reason for keeping girls away from the safe and necessary ability to access emergency contraception is the familiar cultural panic over teenage girls’ sexuality.
It’s time for some real talk with SPARK: teenage girls have sexual desires. Not all of them, and not all those who do choose to act on them. Our culture makes it hard to talk about, but it’s true: a large majority of girls have the desire to have sex before they turn seventeen. [Ed. note: SPARK co-founder Deb Tolman literally wrote the book on this!]
Just like lying to teenage girls about the consequences of sexual activity, not teaching them how to use condoms, or slut-shaming in general, keeping emergency birth control away from girls isn’t going to stop them from having sex. Just look at the failure of abstinence-only sex ed–keeping girls from safe sex isn’t going to keep them away from sex altogether. Yes, it’s possible that keeping necessary birth control away from teenagers might make for slightly fewer sexually active teenagers, maybe, but it will definitely make for more pregnant teenagers—and we can all agree that that’s something we want to avoid.
Plenty of teenagers can’t just get to the doctor on their own. Most teenagers under seventeen don’t have drivers’ licenses and cars, and in many parts of the country, that means they’re relying on parents for transportation. Parents may be disapproving or upset to find out their children are sexually active—some may refuse to get their children emergency contraception, kick them out of the home, or turn physically violent. Protecting teenage girls means protecting them from these things, not from the ability to access contraception.
A staggering number of girls—1 in 4—are victims of sexual assault before the age of 18. Why revictimize these girls by forcing them to go through their parents and then a doctor to get emergency contraception? We should be doing everything we can to protect these most vulnerable girls—and that means keeping them safe from unwanted pregnancy after the trauma of sexual assault.
And all that aside, it’s not like girls under 17 are being “protected” from anything when it comes to sexuality. As we’ve been documenting for years at SPARK, girls are objectified by the media and seen as sexual objects at younger and younger ages. Teenage girls are considered fair game for sexy ads–models younger than 17 are posed in provocative ways, or adult women dressed up like little girls. There are dozens of popular TV shows depicting teenage sexual activity, often with a focus on boys pushing girls into sexual activity, and little girls compete in reality shows wearing nothing but bikinis. The government doesn’t seem to think it’s necessary to protect girls from these images of sexuality, but when it comes to making REAL choices, like taking safety precautions for their bodies and sexual health, suddenly girls need “protecting” from themselves. What?
The way to deal with teen sexuality is not to ignore it. It’s to educate teenagers about how to have safe sex and expand access to contraception as much as possible. Placing artificial barriers between the most vulnerable population of sexually active women—girls under seventeen—and desperately needed birth control is misogynistic, hypocritical, and ultimately destructive. The “negative” effects of sex—unwanted pregnancy, lowered self-esteem, and sexually transmitted infections, to name just a few–are exacerbated by policies like this one, which make safe sex a taboo. Girls who are given accurate information about and easy access to any and all contraceptive methods are able to make informed choices about what is healthy and safe for them, reducing their risk of pregnancy and infection and increasing their ability to feel good about their bodies and themselves. Let’s stop standing in their way.