Lots of important adults — judges, doctors, the POTUS himself — have fervent opinions on whether the morning-after pill should be available to girls of all ages without a prescription and point-of-sale or age restrictions, yet no one ever asks teenagers themselves what they think. So we did.
We're dizzy from trying to keep up with the back-and-forth controversy over whether everyone should be able to easily purchase emergency contraception. (Perhaps we should take some aspirin to ease the headache? Oh, wait, research demonstrates that aspirin is more dangerous than the oh-so-contentious morning-after pill.)
A brief summary of the extremely complicated saga: the Food and Drug Administration originally approved the unrestricted sale of emergency contraception for women and girls of all ages in 2011, but HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius blocked the decision because she was concerned about younger girls having access to the super-safe medication. (Obama publicly supported Sebelius's decision, "as a father of two daughters." Ugh.) Women's health groups sued, and federal judge (and super sassy, super quotable hero) Edward Korman ruled last month that all levonorgestrel-based emergency contraceptives should be made available over-the-counter without restrictions. The FDA approved Plan B One-Step to be available with ID to anyone 15 and older soon after (Obama said he was "comfortable" with that decision, ugh 2.0), then sneakily filed an appeal against Korman's decision. The (very pissed-off) judge denied the government’s request to stay his order pending an appeal to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which the Obama administration filed at the last minute on Monday. Now, the Center for Reproductive Rights has until May 20th to respond before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals makes a decision.
In the meantime, we've heard from conservatives who think Plan B is the devil's pill/ induces abortion (which it most certainly does not), we've read multiple studies about how all kinds of women — old and young, married and single, from all ethnicities and education levels — depend on emergency contraception to prevent unintended pregnancy, and we've noted that even pediatricians think teens should have unrestricted access to emergency contraception.
But we haven't heard from young teenagers themselves, which really seems like a missed opportunity, as they're the ones who are actually affected by the eventual decision. So I hung out with a group of 13 to 16-year-old public school students in downtown Manhattan yesterday at their after-school program (with permission from the social worker in charge) to talk about Obama's daughters, pregnant teenagers and "wrapping it up."
All of the kids I talked to had lots to say about condoms and birth control and abstinence, but they knew next-to-nothing about emergency contraception. "It's something you can take the morning after...you know," one 14-year-old girl giggled. "I know what it is," another said, "but I have no clue what it really does to your body." How did it work? No clue. Who could buy it over-the-counter? Unclear. Where could you procure it? Confused looks.
The four 13 and 14-year-old girls I interviewed unanimously agreed that all teenagers should have easy access to the morning-after pill, but only as a last resort. A 16-year-old boy told me he thought the age limit should be lowered to "12 or 13" because "girls that young can still get themselves into bad situations."
"I see girls mad young walking around school who are pregnant," one 13-year-old said. "I think everyone should be able to get it because that's better than babies having more babies."
Two 8th grade girls who we'll call Stephanie and Trina had the following debate:
Stephanie: "No, girls shouldn't be able to get Plan B so young. They should tell their parents."
Trina: "But what if you can't talk to your parents?"
Stephanie (giggling): "They you have to pray!"
Trina: "I tell my mama everything and I don't do that [have sex] yet. But [young girls] should be able to get it if they are and they can't."
Stephanie: "I don't tell my mom nothing. But yeah. I don't think you should be having sex if you're under 17. And if you do, you should wrap it up, or use birth control. But I guess there shouldn't be a law restriction, just in case."
I asked the girls what they thought would happen to a 14-year-old who wasn't able to get a prescription. "You better hope it's your birthday the next day," one joked. What about a 15-year-old who didn't have photo ID on her? Did they have photo ID on them? They didn't. (It hardly helps to lower the age limit if 15-year-olds aren't aware they need ID to purchase Plan B.) Everyone thought it was hilarious that Obama said he was concerned about the ruling because he had young daughters. "What kind of boys could Sasha and Malia bring home to the White House?" one asked. "There are so many guards!"
I was impressed by how responsible these kids seemed: they kept telling me to "wrap it up" and planned on waiting until they were older to think about sex. They didn't want to pop Plan B like candy so they could have sex with reckless abandon. They all thought it was important to involve their parents when making serious decisions about sex, but were concerned that all teenagers wouldn't be able to do so, especially on short notice.
Age restrictions make it harder for all sorts of women to purchase Plan B: older teens and women who look younger, people sans photo ID, those who don't want to risk stigma in front of other customers, undocumented immigrants...the list goes on. Guttmacher research shows that very few young adolescent girls have sex, and that teenagers don't engage in sexual activity at a higher rate if contraceptives are easily available. More studies have found that even young teens are just as likely as adults to understand medical labeling instructions on the correct use of emergency contraception.
Sure, this was just a tiny subset of teenagers. But it's worth talking to teenagers about what they know and what they want to know about emergency contraception, isn't it? We get it: talking to 13, 14, and 15-year-olds about sex can be scary for liberals and conservatives alike. But they're already talking amongst themselves. If we keep talking about teenagers instead of to them, they won't have enough information to take care of themselves when necessary, and they probably won't feel comfortable going to an adult for advice.
"All the girls at school talk about sex," a 14-year-old girl said. "They talk about what happens after sex. But they don't talk about what happens before sex."