Plan B: Did Fatherhood Influence Obama?

President Barack Obama with daughter Sasha, wife Michelle and daughter Malia (Drew Angerer-pool/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama with daughter Sasha, wife Michelle and daughter Malia (Drew Angerer-pool/Getty Images)

(The Root) — When it comes to President Obama, about the only thing that Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that he has a beautiful family and is a loving father. Even his conservative critics lashed out at the National Rifle Association for referring to Sasha and Malia Obama in an anti-gun control ad.


But there have been times when the president has cited the integral role that his daughters have played in shaping his policies. The highest-profile recent example is when he became the first president to publicly support same-sex marriage and referenced the influence of his daughters, who have friends being raised by same-sex parents. With his administration now reversing its long-held position on Plan B contraception, observers can't help wondering what role being a father of two pubescent girls is playing in shaping his perspective on the issue.

The administration had been fighting for minimum-age requirements for those seeking to obtain Plan B over the counter. Plan B is considered an emergency contraceptive that can prevent pregnancy from occurring if taken within 72 hours after intercourse. It does not terminate pregnancies, like some medications. U.S. District Judge Edward Korman had been critical of the Obama administration's doggedness on this issue, once calling the administration's position "politically motivated" and "scientifically unjustified."

So what prompted the administration and the president to change course? According to the Washington Post, the president hasn't changed his mind on the issue but has simply allowed the Justice Department to change strategies. There are two versions of Plan B, with one requiring two pills and more complicated dosing instructions and another requiring one pill. A senior administration official speaking anonymously to the Post explained that the legal wrangling over both forms of the medication left the administration concerned that the more complicated version of the pill could become available if they did not drop their current opposition. This concern led them to drop their fight so that the version that is easier and, some argue, safer to use would become available instead. (To read the full explanation, click here.)

But there is another possibility. Perhaps the president woke up to the fact that not every young girl is blessed with the type of parents his daughters have.

Although to my knowledge he has not publicly discussed the first lady and his sex-ed practices as parents, he has been candid about recognizing its importance in the lives of his children. He sparked controversy on the 2008 campaign trail for referring to his daughters during his defense of reproductive rights, saying, "If they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby." But studies show that plenty of young girls do not have parents whose eyes are as wide open as the Obamas, particularly in the black community.

A study of nearly 7,000 young girls found that black mothers are the least likely to have an accurate and realistic understanding of their daughters' sexual activity. Additionally, a 2005 study found that parents who are religious are less likely to discuss sexual health with their kids. Both of these findings highlight some of the reasons the black community has some of the worst HIV-infection rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates in the country: a lack of open and honest dialogue around sexual health.


A 2009 study published in the journal Pediatrics also found that more than 40 percent of adolescents had already had sex before their parents talked to them about STDs or contraception. Even more disconcerting, teens whose parents do not speak with them about sex are more likely to have sex earlier. Although plenty of parents have no problem enrolling their kids in driver's ed before they can legally drive, these same parents — particularly religious ones — balk at the idea of educating their teens on sexual health before they expect their kids to become sexually active. (Jessica Henriquez recently set the Internet ablaze with her essay blaming her quick divorce on having practiced abstinence before marriage because of religious reasons.)

But a 2011 ABC News report found that some doctors were beginning to see some parents starting their daughters on birth control at younger ages, as young as 12. This happens to be the age at which President Obama opposes allowing girls to be able to purchase Plan B. (His youngest daughter, Sasha, just turned 12.)


But here's a question: If a 12-year-old girl has the psychological development to be able to make the choice to engage in sex — and legally could have made the choice to purchase condoms over the counter before but didn't — then why shouldn't she legally be allowed to purchase a pill after the fact to compensate for the fact that she didn't purchase condoms before? Particularly if she has the kind of parent who didn't feel comfortable putting her on birth control and preventing her from needing Plan B in the first place.

What exactly is that girl supposed to do after she has already engaged in intercourse? Where is she supposed to get the prescription for Plan B? Is she supposed to tell the parent who assumed she wasn't having sex, and told her not to, that she has already done it and is now worried that she may be facing pregnancy? What if the parent is abusive — or, worse, to quote the president, tells her she should be "punished with a baby"?


Maybe the president finally thought about these harsh realities, and that influenced his evolution on the Plan B fight. Or maybe his daughters enlightened him about the fact that not all of their friends are blessed with parents like him and the first lady, who realize that a commitment to sexual and reproductive health is a commitment to good parenting. 

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter