How wrong is Kathleen Parker about Plan B birth control? Let me count the ways!

Kathleen Parker’s column in today’s Washington Post, which is about over-the-counter sales of Plan B birth control, is a small masterpiece of sophistry. It’s a virtual greatest hits collection of all those arguments by the anti-birth control reactionaries that sound superficially compelling, but immediately fall apart the second you hold them up to the light of day. Let’s take a look at her BS claims one at a time:

1. First off, there’s the classic “My kid can’t even get aspirin from the school nurse without a permission slip, so birth control without my say? Hells to the no!” Parker writes:

A 15-year-old can’t get Tylenol at school without parental permission, but we have no hesitation about children taking a far more serious drug without oversight?

There are several issues here. First of all, we’re not talking about the ability of a minor to get Plan B at school; we’re talking about her ability to buy it over the counter at a drug store — just as she can freely buy Tylenol.

Secondly, there’s the implication that Plan B is a more dangerous drug than Tylenol. But it’s not; after years of rigorous scientific testing, researchers have found it to be perfectly safe for over-the-counter use. And given that the cost of a single dose is at least $35, ODs are unlikely.

Thirdly — come to think of it, isn’t the fact that kids can’t get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental involvement kind of whack?

2. Next we come to Parker’s claim that the Obama administration’s decision to limit the sale of Plan B to those 15 and older has no effect whatsoever on the accessibility of the drug to women in general:

Yet, repeatedly in the past several days, we’ve heard the argument that any interference with the over-the-counter sale of Plan B to any female of any age is blocking a woman’s right to self-determination.

Clearly, Parker does not really understand how this policy will work — or maybe she does but is disingenuously pretending not to. Whatever the case, here’s the thing: once you set an age limit and start requiring proof of age, you’re creating a substantial obstacle for all women. Poor women and very young women are far less likely to have a photo ID with proof of age than are their older, wealthier counterparts. Only something like one-third of Americans hold passports, and the percentage of minors with passports is surely far lower than that (I could not find statistics that broke down passport ownership by age). And these days, far fewer teens are getting their drivers’ licenses.

The other problem with an age limit is that puts a lot of power in the hands of individual check-out clerks. Especially in rural, conservative areas, this is likely to be a serious issue. Pharmacists who, for religious reasons, refuse to dispense birth control are a growing problem. Some drug store clerks are inevitably going to act like jackasses and hassle women buying Plan B. We will dramatically diminish their ability to do so if we take away their power to demand proof of ID.

3. In classic wingnut fashion, Parker seeks to distract her readers by focusing their attention on vague abstractions rather than unlovely specifics:

To say that this controversy is strictly political is no argument against debate. Politics is the debate about the role of government in our lives. And the debate about Plan B is fundamentally about whether government or parents have ultimate authority over their children’s well-being.

Oh, I see! We’re just having a high-minded debate about the “proper role of government” here. Except that we aren’t: the conflict here isn’t parents vs. the government, it’s parents vs. the reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy of their daughters. Be that as it may, Parker is trying to make this about “the big bad government” vs. the rights of individual parents — who always, of course, have their daughter’s best interests at heart, and would never, ever physically or emotionally abuse her if she asked her parents’ permission to go on birth control. Forget about the specter of a terrified 12-year old girl who’s faced with the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy, who fears that her life may be ruined, and who then must grapple with the full array of health complications that pregnancy and birth entails.

It’s well worth mentioning here that many young girls become pregnant from sexual relationships that are not exactly what most of us would consider to be consensual. Studies show that teens are far more likely to become pregnant if their sex partner is older. For example, the pregnancy rate for girls age 15 to 17 is 3.7 times greater if their partner is six or more years older than they are, vs. two years older. Many teen pregnancies result from statutory rape, incest, or other abusive relationships. But hey, let’s just compound the trauma by denying these little sluts birth control and forcing them to deal with an unwanted pregnancy!

4. Another problem with Parker’s argument her blanket refusal to look at the alternative — i.e., what will happen if young girls are denied access to birth control. The debate here is not whether, or at what age, it’s okay for young girls to become sexually active. We’re talking about their right to prevent pregnancy once they do start having sex. Parker blithely assumes that, while young teens are not mature enough to pop a single pill within 72 hours of intercourse, they are mature enough to experience a full-term pregnancy, with all the life-changing, potentially traumatic physical and mental health consequences that entails. Excuse me, but WTF? Even if we restrict ourselves to the woman’s physical health alone, the risks of pregnancy and giving birth are far more serious than any of the very mild risks associated with Plan B.

But Parker’s piece relies on emotionalism rather than science. She resolutely refuses to trouble her beautiful mind with the facts.

5. And speaking of emotionalism: finally, there’s this — Parker pulls out her ace in the hole, and plays the parent card:

Question 2: Do you think that girls as young as 11 or 12 should be able to buy the morning-after pill without any adult supervision? Didn’t think so.

Question 3: If you answered yes to Question 2, are you a parent? Didn’t think so.

Sorry, but I call BS on this. First of all, having a pregnant, underaged daughter on their hands is among many parents’ worst nightmares. Many would vastly prefer that their daughter had ready access to birth control, as opposed to the alternatives of supporting her decision to get an abortion, or the decision to carry a pregnancy to term, and (as usually happens in such cases) keep the baby. With birth control, there are far fewer agonizing decisions and is far less pain all around — let alone the fact that much of the responsibility for raising a baby born to a very young girl would inevitably fall on the shoulders of her parents.

Secondly, if parents really would prefer that their daughter be denied birth control, so what? Sorry mates, but it’s not your body and it’s not your decision. Legally mandated forced pregnancy — which is basically what you get when birth control options are shut down — is incompatible with human liberty and respect for the individual. Even children have some basic rights, and the right to refuse the physical and emotional burdens of pregnancy damn well ought to be one of them.

Finally, the other huge problem of playing the parent card is the dubious assumption that mommy and daddy can always see things more clearly and that they inevitably know what’s best for their little darling. But again, this is bogus. For one thing, daddy dearest or some other beloved male relative or stepfather may be the party guilty of raping and knocking up the daughter in the first place.

Beyond that, there’s the problem that many parents have bizarre, antiquated patriarchal notions about their daughters’ sexuality. You’d think that in 2013, parents would be less irrational and hysterically overprotective about these things than they were in the past, but in many ways they’re actually worse. The Christian right, with their chastity balls and virginity pledges, is one version of it; endlessly anxious, over-controlling helicopter parents are the bourgeois secular equivalent.

So no, I don’t think that father — or mother — necessarily knows best. Even if they’re not abusive, mom and dad may still have some pretty deranged notions about their daughter’s sexuality and some pretty serious control issues.

In her column, Kathleen Parker makes lots of reasonable-sounding noises. She doesn’t slut-shame, nor she doesn’t oppose Plan B outright, and she doesn’t invoke the baby Jesus. She poses the question,”Even if we would prefer that girls not be sexually active so early in life, wouldn’t we rather they block a pregnancy before it happens than wait and face the worse prospect of abortion?” — and admits that it is “legitimate” to ask it.

Parker’s shtick, like David Brooks’, is that she’s the “reasonable,” respectable conservative. And yet, like Brooks, she speaks dismissively of any science that doesn’t lend support to her ideology, and she prefers to couch her arguments in glittering abstractions, rather than the difficult, gritty realities of many Americans’ lives. In this column, the harsh reality she’s in denial about is the trauma of a teen, or even pre-teen, girl facing an unwanted pregnancy; in others, she’s ignored the tragedy of gun violence and the poor, the sick, and the elderly who are the victims of vicious G.O.P. budget cuts. Strangely enough, for all her faux centrism, Parker, like Brooks, nearly always toes the hack G.O.P. line on any given subject. I’d respect her a lot more if she gave up the ghost and openly embraced her inner wingnut. But until she does that, an honest political debate with her and her center-right concern troll ilk (Brooks etc.) is not possible. The good faith that is a necessary prerequisite for such a debate is sorely lacking here.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee