Four Ways Obama’s Birth Control Fail Hurts Young Women of Color

With president Obama's cosign, U.S. health secretary Kathleen Sebelius just made it harder for women of color to prevent unintended pregnancies. Is this the thanks we get?

By Akiba Solomon Dec 09, 2011

By now you’ve probably heard about how U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius voided the FDA’s decision to allow girls under 17 to buy emergency contraception (EC) without a prescription. That Obama-backed overrule came in spite of ample evidence that the single dose of the hormone levonorgestrel, sold under the brand name Plan B One-Step, reduces pregnancy risk by up to 90 percent when taken within 72 hours of a busted condom, missed pill or any other contraceptive fail. Know that girls under age 17 have been able to get EC with a prescription since 2006. But after an extensive review, the FDA OK’d unrestricted over-the-counter sales for this group–a sensible policy for a time-sensitive method. 

But then came Secretary Sebelius’s intervention. In a bizarre statement, she cited the relatively impaired judgement of the "ten percent of girls [who] are physically capable of bearing children by 11.1 years of age," as if that crew is lining up at the Walgreens to cop this $70 pill. Unswayed, critics called the move unprecedented and shamelessly political.

I’m not going to play detective about the origins of this punk move decision. What’s more significant to me is how this mess might disproportionately impact young women of color. So far, I can count four ways this decision sucks for colored girls who have considered ‘the morning after pill’ when their first-line birth control wasn’t enough:

1. Black and brown women are more likely to get pregnant by mistake

I’m so not a fan of white-women-as-control-group, but in this context, it’s important to note that while 36 out of 1,000 white girls and women ages 15 to 44 have an unintended pregnancy, that rate is 86 for Latinas and freaking 91 for black girls and women. (I’ve searched for recent, reliable stats for Native American and API sisters to no avail.) If anybody needs better access to EC, it’s us. 

2. It’s unfair to undocumented girls and women

Because of the age restrictions, pharmacists store EC behind the counter. Even if you are eligible for it without a prescription, Sebelius’s decision ensures that you’ll get carded. Not so good. As Advocates for Youth‘s Aimee Thorne-Thomsen points out, "Women of color and immigrants face significant barriers securing identification documents." There’s also a question of what constitutes proper ID: "How many teenagers have any form of identification, never mind an ID that shows proof of age?" she asks. "And who is to say that pharmacists will accept a school ID anyway? This is just another obstacle in women being able to take care of themselves."

3. It gives older sex partners more power over girls

Listen to Salamishah Tillet, an anti-rape activist and co-founder of the Chicago-based domestic violence prevention program A Long Walk Home: "When we think of girls under 17 needing emergency contraception, we imagine two kids making out at home. But in my experience, a lot of unintended pregnancies occur in girls who are having sex with older men," she says. "Barring easier access to EC doesn’t address the exploitative nature of many of these relationships. Of course Plan B won’t prevent sexual exploitation, but it does enable girls have to have more power over their reproduction."

4. Less access to birth control means more abortions. Duh. 

I’ve gone over. And over. And over the games anti-choicers are playing with race, abortion access and Planned Parenthood funding. And we’ve established that women of color have a higher abortion rate than white women for financial reasons. In this climate, does it really make sense to further limit birth control access to teen girls? (That’s a rhetorical question.) As Tillet says more eloquently: "With the erosion of our social and economic safety net there are so few resources to support girls when they actually have children. Shouldn’t we do as much as possible to help them prevent pregnancy?" Yes.