One of the more low-key fronts in the ideological war that has divided the citizens of this country is the fate of Plan B, the morning after pill.
Barr Laboratories has applied to the Food and Drug Administration to sell the emergency contraception over the counter. It was first approved as a prescription treatment in 1999. It has been mired in the approvals process far longer than is necessary, for one reason only: the aforementioned war of ideologies.
Any quick reading of the coverage surrounding the debate would make it appear as if Plan B were part of the abortion debacle. After all, the pill’s fiercest critics and its most ardent defenders are all organizations that have had long-term focus on abortion, such as NARAL Pro-Choice and Family PAC Federal. What gets lost in the coverage is the fact that this issue is not about abortion. Indeed, if the pill is effective at preventing an unwanted pregnancy, there is no need for an abortion that terminates a pregnancy. Plan B has nothing to do with the life and death of a fetus and everything to do with differing perceptions of human morality.
Pro-choice organizations see the opposition to making Plan B available over the counter as an attack on reproductive rights, which could lead to a tightening of abortion law. Feminist organizations see the opposition as an attack on women’s rights, one designed to impose a fundamentalist Christian view of a woman’s place in society on an unwilling public. Anti-abortion activists paint the fight as one of saving the lives of unborn children. However, this last view is patently false.
The opposition to Plan B has focused on whether or not the pill should be made available to minors. The issue of adult use of the pill has scarcely been mentioned. It also ignores the science. The pill does not destroy a fetus, as an abortion does. It prevents a pregnancy from ever taking place. There is no life for the anti-abortion crowd to save. What there is, however, is a concern that Plan B will throw off the shackles of fear the Christian right has used to try to prevent teenage sex. Any changing of the status quo, especially one that revolves around sexual freedom, sends the far right into explosive orgasms of indignation, if you will.
The fact that the fight over Plan B is not about unborn children, means that the feminists defending the pill appear to be on the right track in their assertion that attacking Plan B is nothing but a cover for rescinding women’s rights. In order to understand this, and the more important effect opposition to Plan B has on teenagers, it is important to understand the right’s morality, something the left has not done well.
The left love to point out many seeming contradictions in the way conservatism operates. One of the favorites is pointing out that most anti-abortion conservatives are also pro-death penalty. Many liberals are confused by this simply because one of the inherent teachings of liberalism is the equality of all life, whereas conservatives have no problem establishing the higher value of an unborn child as opposed to a person who has failed in their moral duty to remain free of a criminal life. As far as conservatives are concerned, someone on death row has forfeited their right to live by being so morally bankrupt as to end up there in the first place, whereas liberalism finds that not killing criminals, or anybody, for that matter, to be morally pure. For conservatives, an unborn child, unlike a criminal, is free from even original sin, is morally pure, and therefore worth saving. Contradiction absolved.
However, there is more to this. I touched earlier on conservative attitudes to a woman’s moral behavior, and this is the other side of the anti-abortion argument. Real conservatism is not just that it is far too pro-business, or even that fiscal conservatism in government is a myth. Rather, conservatism resides within the walls of a very unique brand of moral behavior, one that is rigid in what is considered acceptable, and harsh in its punishments.
In this social brand of conservatism, the stereotypical 1950’s or present-day Republican fantasy plays itself out. It is a fantasy that focuses on the family, and a hierarchical system whereby the father, or male, remains at the head of the family and is responsible for rewarding good behavior and punishing bad, in order to make his children self-reliant in a tough and unforgiving world. A woman’s place in this structure is at the father’s side, providing moral support and an example to their children of what a good wife’s behavior should be. It is an existence of maybe not outright or blatant subservience, but certainly one where there are boundaries that should not be crossed. As far as the children are concerned, even though they entered this world morally pure, and deserving of protection, it is up to them to maintain good moral standing by not giving in to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, crime, and most especially, sex. These are equally unforgiving boundaries in the life of a child of conservative upbringing. When they are crossed, punishment is meted out.
It is also a fantasy that pictures America as a place that rewards hard work and strict moral behavior, one that even bridges the hierarchy of the family out into society at large, placing successful entrepreneurs on a pedestal of moral righteousness above the working crowd. After all, if the rich weren’t better than most, they wouldn’t have the money, would they?
The anti-abortion movement is another form of this bridging of conservatism from family life into society. What conservatives see in abortion is not just an unborn child, but a woman who, if it becomes the norm that there are no consequences from having sex, will open her legs for every passerby on the street. Conservatives fear such a nightmare scenario because they feel it represents the breakdown of the hierarchical family unit that conservatism is based upon. What it would lead to, in their view, is chaos.
This chaos they see is at its most insidious when it involves teenagers. Teenagers are cursed with bodies capable of very adult behavior without the life experience or knowledge to back it up. Plan B looks like a license to have sex to conservatives, sold over the counter to every sixteen year old girl as a means of avoiding responsibility and good moral behavior. Once again, conservatives have mistaken a symptom of a disease for the cause itself.
What the opposition to Plan B fails to point out, or just refuses to acknowledge because it fails to fit into their pre-established frames, is that a pill is not the cause of sex. There has always been teenage sex, there will always be teenage sex. Admitting that teenagers have sex is not tantamount to throwing up a white flag and surrendering to an unstoppable flood of immoral behavior, as conservatives would have you think. Rather, it’s a step in recognizing that an issue that has to be addressed exists. There is no reason to believe that teenage sex would increase measurably with the introduction of another over the counter contraceptive.
What Plan B would accomplish, hopefully as effectively as other contraceptives, is prevent the anguish and complications that accompany unwanted pregnancies in teenagers. In the long term, whatever fears conservatives have about teenagers running wild in the streets would be negated by a decreasing pregnancy rate in those who are too young to be parents.
But because conservatism is rigid in its morality, it cannot recognize any grey area in its vision of moral right and wrong. Teenagers should not be having sex, therefore they shouldn’t have any access to materials or education that would make the experience one they would not regret. This is unfortunate, as the lack of real sex education and access to contraceptives has the result of increasing teenage pregnancy rates, and may increase instances of rape among young adults.
Denying these needed materials from the young is tantamount to mythologizing sex, creating warped and unhealthy visions of what sex is. It also serves to create just the burden on society that conservatives hope to avoid. Without uninhibited access to all forms of education, contraceptives, and abortions, there will be far more cases of unwanted pregnancy than are acceptable, creating yet more fervor on the right for restrictive behavior and stigmatizing punishment. In this way, conservative morality may very well be the cause of a disease it tries to prevent.