Friday, December 09, 2011


I'm not saying you have to be pleased at Kathleen Sebelius's decision not to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B to girls under seventeen, or that you have to have to be pleased by President Obama's approval of the decision. Of course it was what he wanted; of course it was political; of course the decision was made with thoughts of the president's political viability in mind. Be disgusted, sure, but don't be surprised.

I guess what I find strange is the reaction of people who are usually very sensible, like Steve Benen:

But in this case, the Plan B decision is the wrong policy and it seems like a wrong political move, too. Who's going to be swayed by restricting teen access to the morning-after pill? Those most likely to applaud the decision are voters who almost certainly didn't support the president in 2008 and won’t support him in 2012.

Why does he think that? Surely he's looked at polling data on abortion, especially on abortion and young people. Surely he can intuit that the polling numbers on, say, parental notification would reveal how Americans feel about teen sex in general, and whether they feel it's different from sex among adults.

Well, let's start with polling on abortion in general. For years, Gallup has been asking poll respondents, "With respect to the abortion issue, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?" Since 1996, except in one 2009 survey, "pro-choice" has never gone below 45% according the Gallup. It's gone as high as 56%. As a rule, "pro-choice" is ahead of "pro-life" or one or two points behind.

But ask whether respondents favor parental notification laws and it's a very different story:

So there are clearly large numbers of people who regard themselves as generally pro-choice, but not willing to extend choice to unsupervised minors.

And given the fact that, nationally, Democrats get more than 28% of the vote even when they lose, you have to conclude that some people who oppose unrestricted choice for teenagers are Democrats.

(You'd also have to conclude that some Democrats are anti-abortion -- after all, somebody voted in Bob Casey Sr. and Jr. over the years, not to mention Bart Stupak.)

I give Amanda Marcotte credit for at least recognizing the problem:

... a lot of people seem to think that's a really stupid decision, assuming that the opposition to OTC Plan B is the same as the opposition to covering contraception fully, that is, a bunch of misogynist wingnuts that will never vote for Obama anyway, and no one else. And really, that was my first inclination, too. But then I started to check out some non-wingnut reactions, and now I'm not so sure anymore. Turns out a lot of people---especially men---who think of themselves as "reasonable" or moderate or even liberal, quickly glommed on to the argument that this ruling was addressing a parent's right to know.

Exactly. She thinks the solution is a change in American attitudes toward teenage sex, or at least liberal parents' attitudes -- we should embrace it, the way we embrace teen driving:

We frame driving as an exciting new development that demonstrates that a teenager is getting closer to adulthood. Yes, it's about responsibility, but everyone involved is happy because we know that it's really cool getting to the point where you can start going where you what when you want, and the fun and freedom that affords you. On the contrary, most adults imagine the discovery that an adolescent is sexually active as a tragic event for the family that requires recriminations and possibly even punishment....

Some liberals offer support for this more progressive view of teenage sexuality, pointing out that we all were doing it as teenagers, and it turned out pretty well on the whole. And would have been even better if there hadn't been so much shame and fear. But mostly liberals buy the idea that teenage sexuality should be treated like a form of acting out and misbehaving, and that when you turn 18 or 21 or 25, you should be able to flip a switch that makes it about pleasure and bonding. Until liberals as a group are willing to be outspoken in our support of teenagers' right to grow into their sexuality at their own pace---and that we did so ourselves, and it was fine---we can expect Democrats to take a punitive approach to teenage sexuality instead of a sex-positive, health-centric view.

That seems wildly unreasonable, and you'd have to change the attitudes of not only liberals but moderates (America has a hell of a lot more moderates than liberals, and a lot of moderates vote Democratic). But this is at least acknowledging the real issue: Americans are uncomfortable with loosening restrictions on teen sex. If you don't even see that, then I guess this decision is incomprehensible, even as an act of political cynicism (or, if you want to put it more charitably, as a way for a vulnerable president to avoid expending political capital he doesn't have with an election coming up). But I say if you hate this decision, you have to be clear-eyed about how Americans think, and start working on changing their thinking. You can't just assume that most of the country sees things the way you do, or that voters in the middle are immune to the right-wing demagoguery that inevitably would have followed a different decision.


Swellsman said...

Great post. And while Amanda's suggestion may be wildly unreasonable politically, it is without doubt exactly where we should be trying to go as a society.

c u n d gulag said...

Interesting framing of this issue.

I hadn't thought about it this way.

Thanks for giving it some perspective!

BH said...

Amen, Steve, again. I believe you've been eating extra Wheaties lately.

gone said...

People don't like other people telling them how to raise their kids. Simple as that. Especially with such a controversial subject. I have Plan B on my shelf available for my daughter without her needing to tell me that she needs it; if another family doesn't want to do that, fine. Not my call, or anyone else's.

Good for Sebelius and Obama if he had anything to do with it, which I doubt.

Monty said...

Steve Benen, while normally very lucid and insightful, has always been a tremendous Obama a fault. His analysis is colored by the assumption Obama is not a fucking weasel.