Exclusive: Obama’s Epic #FAIL on Plan B

Please read this article, and just as the steam is coming out of your ears, go sign the petition and leave your comment for the president. It’s up to us to hold him, and all politicians, accountable.

Beyond-CrankyOut 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 pregnancies, 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.

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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 assured the New York Times 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.

Here’s the link to Adele M. Stan’s original post found at The Women’s Media Center



  1. Vaughn Keller on December 14, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    This President has been disappointing on so many fronts it is difficult to name them all. And he is doing so because of the Republicans. He played the card in the Sixty Minutes interview: “What’s your alternative?” A third party is not realistic. The Republicans would be far worse. And so, I will hold my nose and vote for him at the same time I am hammering my Massachusetts delegation to give him some backbone. And, I am campaigning for Elizabeth Warren to replace Scott Brown.

  2. Gloria Feldt on December 14, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    Vaughn-I just had the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth Warren this morning–that’ll be my next post. She really restores one’s soul. I have decided that the best thing I can do is to support the progressive women who are running for senate. If we can elect enough of them, they will help to keep Obama accountable.

  3. […] a president who routinely appeases the unappeasable right, as witness the retreat on Plan B last week, the best ballast is to elect more progressive women like Elizabeth […]

  4. Vickie Pynchon on December 16, 2011 at 10:55 am

    I obtained birth control without parental consent from Planned Parenthood when I was 17 years old. Could I have obtained it if I needed parental consent? No. In fact, I was in college, still living “under my parents’ roof” when the mother of a friend of mine (who was living with us because she’d been thrown out of her house and deprived of her parents’ support) called my mother to give her the shocking news that both my friend and I were taking birth control pills.

    My friend, by the way, worked full-time, returned to college, supported herself and is today a world-famous neuroscientist. If my friend (or I) had gotten pregnant for lack of birth control, neither of us may have had the ability to put ourselves through college and graduate school. I like to think that I too make a considerable difference in the world, first as a lawyer and second as an advocate for women (maybe this is reversing now – first as an advocate for women!)

    President Obama, for whom I worked tirelessly in ’08 will not have my tireless support in ’08 but Elizabeth Warren surely will. Obama’s failure to support women’s reproductive freedom makes me wish I’d listened to those who pressured me so strongly to vote for Clinton to vote for Clinton.

    I do hope that if Obama’s daughters become sexually active, they will have at least as much control over their bodies and their futures as I did at 17 more than 40 years ago.

    Until then, someone needs to tell Obama – YOU ARE NOT THE BOSS OF US!

  5. Gloria Feldt on December 16, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Vickie, you have connected the dots between the personal and the political, which I think is what politicians so rarely do. That’s why telling the story is so all important.

    There’s a lot of buyer’s remorse re Obama, and it’s pretty evident that Clinton would have understood these issues is quite a different way. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it recently, she has lived her life in a woman’s body.

    What we must do is keep the pressure on Obama, not let the disappointment with him play into the Republicans’ hands, and make him do better for women from here on out.

  6. Aletha on December 20, 2011 at 3:03 am

    Suppose the chances of Obama winning reelection are not realistic. This may seem too horrible to contemplate, but given how skillfully he is alienating his base, women ought to contemplate it. Then supporting him, as opposed to going independent of mainstream politics, is effectively playing into the hands of the Republicans. He has been thumbing his nose at the Democratic base (not just women) all along, despite whatever pressure is brought to bear. This can be called playing both ends against the middle, having your cake and eating it too, triangulation, taking advantage of the popular perception that a third party is not realistic, or just plain hypocrisy. Democrats count on being perceived as the only realistic alternative to the Republicans. As long as that is widely believed, US politics will remain a travesty.

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