The Politics of Overnight Birth Control

Neighbors said she played often with her 13-month-old son in the front yard of her parent's home where she lived. Two baby swings, yellow and red, hang on ropes from limbs of a small tree. She was 16 when she got pregnant. Married the father. That Saturday morning when he was away serving in the Marines, she changed their boy's diaper, strapped him into the back car seat and drove to work at McDonalds. Eight hours and 130 degrees later, Diana Rodriguez returned to her car and dead baby. Screaming, she refused to give the body to paramedics. "It was a busy day. I didn't mean it. I forgot." She now faces up to 16 years in prison.

The headlines read "13-Month-Old Died in Car While Woman at Job." But usually someone her age -- a teenager -- is called a child, an innocent who must be shielded from temptation by education and sexual health services.

"Were talking about young people who can't remember to bring their homework to school or set their alarm clock -- and yet we want them to remember to use a condoms every time they engage in sexual intercourse?" says the head of the Florence, Kentucky health board's human sexuality committee, which decided abstinence-only is in, sex education's out.

Too young and irresponsible to handle sexual knowledge, but better be ready for baby should pregnancy follow the dirty deed. Who knows if Rodriguez had planned to become a mom before graduating from high school? But odds are she was taught to save herself for marriage. Dismiss her story as an isolated tragedy, one that has nothing to do with anything except one young woman's horrendous move. Or roll it into the many daily stories that dot headlines nationwide, such as abandoned infants at fire stations and dumpsters, shaking deaths by fathers trying to stop the crying, or parents otherwise ill prepared to bring a new life into this world.

The irrefutable fact is we are not giving young people the internal or external resources needed to make smart reproductive choices. Or adults. As the world zips ahead at technological warp speed, expanding and complicating possibilities found before only in science fiction -- cyberspace, cloning, fertility treatment, robotics, globalization -- government cranks back the clock to limit and simplify by legislating against sexual health services and education. Have sex, suffer the consequences is resurrected as public policy. Should an "oops" pregnancy happen -- and half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended -- conservatives are hard at work to ensure the pregnant one won't know of or can't exercise the latest medical options.

Called the biggest kept secret in medicine, emergency contraception (EC) can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected intercourse to either block ovulation or, if too late, prevent the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. Research shows the two-dose hormone pills could cut the nation's three million unintended pregnancies a year in half, as well as 800,000 abortions. The true impact of EC is extricating individual lives, existing and potential, from, say, the drunken heat of the moment, forced sex, a night's desperation for promised love or a just broken condom.

But since the FDA approved two "morning after" pills three years ago, Preven and Plan B, political debate has raged over this technology that permits consequence-free non-procreative sex. Health advocates are pushing to make EC more accessible, as in Europe. W. Benson Harer Jr, the new president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recently asked doctors to give women advance prescriptions of Preven, Plan B or Micronor during routine visits. California has a bill to make emergency contraception available over the counter, so that women, in an emergency, can obtain it without a prior doctor's visit. Only Washington state now provides that option. Last month eight California counties launched a pilot program that allows EC distribution without prescription.

San Bernardino County, however, made an unprecedented pill-ban request to bar emergency contraception in county-run health clinics. Denied by the California Family Health Council, the request should wind its way to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services this year. "[Our] motivation is based upon a desire to protect children in our County and to uphold community standards, preserve local control and to defend parental rights," wrote the chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. Never mind that county health records show the vast majority of the pills recipients were not teens, but poor women without insurance or access to family planning.

What the proposed ban does fall in line with is the right's mission to deny medication to those most vulnerable to an unwanted pregnancy. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) has sponsored an education amendment to deny federal funds to school-based health centers that provide emergency contraception without parental consent. A second Helms amendment withdraws funds from "any state or local education agency," should EC be distributed on the premises period.

Of course when it comes to government withholding medical options, the vulnerable are always the most afflicted. Each year, some 32,000 women become pregnant from sexual assault; half abort. In several states, lawmakers spar with the Catholic Church to mandate hospitals, including the multiplying Catholic-affiliated ones, to dispense emergency contraception to rape victims. The Catholic health system, the nation's largest nonprofit health care delivery, can refuse reproductive services under legislated "conscience clauses." Illinois, the first state to reach an EC compromise, will require hospitals to merely inform rape victims of the pills' availability. Some Catholic hospitals offer the pills only after testing the victim to ensure she's not ovulating, thus giving the rapist's sperm a fighting chance.

Emergency contraception falls into the abortion debate's great divide -- when does life begin? The extreme right believes every sperm and egg is potential life, and stands against all medical contraception. Wal-Mart, the nation's fifth-largest pharmacy chain, circumvented controversy early on by refusing to ever fill EC prescriptions. Since the pills work best within 12 hours of intercourse, Wal-Mart's ban affects millions of women in their childbearing years, especially those in rural areas who have nowhere else nearby to go.

Meanwhile, Pharmacists for Life International is offering legal support to pharmacists who refuse to fill EC prescriptions. Pharmacist Karen Bauer lost her job of seven years with a Cincinnati Kmart for her "it stops human life" refusal, and her case has gone to court. Several states are considering legislation to protect such "conscientious objectors." The media has treated Bauer's case as a moral stand. But is it moral to accept a health care position delivering medication to those in need, and then unilaterally decide which legal prescriptions not to provide based on your personal beliefs? Could a Christian Scientist become a pharmacist and not fill prescriptions because God will heal?

Only hardliners equate emergency contraception -- which can spare a woman and her loved ones the agonizing decision to abort or give birth to an unwanted child -- with abortion. No fetus forming in the uterus. No fingers. No toes. No heartbeat. But pandering to hardliners, President Bush overruled Secretary of State Colin Powell's selection and nominated U.N. Vatican representative John Klink to head the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. The anti-family planning, anti-condom Klink could soon have power to stop emergency contraception from further being included in some health kits to refugees forced out of their homes during war and conflict.

Set to fly his anti-abortion colors, President Bush told Catholic leaders that his faith-based initiative would help the "life" movement, "because when you're talking about welcoming people of faith to help people who are disadvantaged and are unable to defend themselves, the logical step is also those babies."

But the administration continues to whittle away fundamental steps to prevent the need for abortion. Internationally, President Bush reinstated UN restrictions for family planning funding. Nationally, he increased funding for abstinence-only programs, which supplant sex education and mention birth control only to discuss their inflated failure rate. More baffling, he moved to eliminate birth control coverage for federal employees, affecting 1.2 million women and their ability to manage the size of their family.

The Bush-loving hardliners, who call themselves pro-life, pro-family, flex swelling political muscle to regress our nation to when sex means life or death, always.

Maybe teenage Rodriguez would have baked her baby boy in a parked car while working all day even if she had access to sex education and the latest reproductive services. Even if she had been taught early on that her sex is part of her beautiful, valued self, not something she does. Even if she had been given ample information and support to make sound choices before or after getting pregnant.

But today's political reality forbids all that. I share responsibility for her loss, as must other Americans who influence the myriad of policies denying education and sexual health options in the name of morality and life.

Lara Riscol is writing "Ten Sex Myths That Screw America," a book she began while completing a master's degree in contemporary issues and public policy at the University of Denver. Write to her at


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