Use of Plan B comes down to personal choice

August 08, 2006|By DAVID L. ULIN

Not long ago, in an act of near-adolescent abandon, my wife and I had unprotected sex. We were not trying to have a baby; rather, in the heat of the moment, we never quite got around to using birth control. When we realized what had happened, we were faced with a conundrum: Should we simply wait and take our chances, or should we try a more active approach?

In the end, my wife called her doctor and asked for a prescription for Plan B, the "morning-after" birth control pill.

Plan B was back in the news last week with the Food and Drug Administration's announcement that it would allow over-the-counter sales of the pill if access is restricted to adults. The drug, which prevents pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, has become an odd beachhead in the war over reproductive rights, with opponents arguing that it would encourage promiscuity or worse.

According to The New York Times, a conservative group called Concerned Women for America worries that "you could have a statutory rapist buy the drug in order to cover up his abuse." That's an extreme bit of sophistry, but logic often falls prey to emotion on the front lines of the reproductive divide.

I'm not immune to emotion, especially when it comes to this. For my wife and me, the decision to use Plan B was hardly casual. Although we are both pro-choice and favor the widest possible access to Plan B, we have serious qualms about the ethics of abortion and conception, questions about when, exactly, life begins.

We are in our mid-40s, the parents of two children, ages 11 and 7, and in 25 years together (we started dating as college freshmen) we've never had an unwanted pregnancy scare.

But if this makes us precisely the sort of people activists on both sides overlook - middle class, monogamous, in favor of reproductive freedom but uneasy about the implications - it also suggests just how murky and complicated the issue really is.

Why did we use Plan B? We did it for our family. We weren't trying to avoid responsibility, but rather to embrace it.

For us - like most people, I'd suspect - having a family is a matter of intention, of a thousand little decisions every day that tell us who we are and how we mean to live. There's also a pragmatic element at work here: My wife and I are stretched thin with two kids and two jobs, with school, rent, clothing, health insurance, time. But more to the point, we love our family as it is, love the balance among the four of us, the dynamic, the emotional interplay.

This is our decision, our sense of what is right, our individual accountability. It's what I think of when I hear that amorphous term "pro-choice," the choice to live as I see fit, to make decisions and deal with the consequences. That's what the continuing debate over reproductive freedom misses: that you can't legislate morality, that being an adult means measuring pros and cons, compromising, deciding what you can bear and what you can't. In the end, it's a matter of personal conscience, a conversation we each must have with ourselves.

Ultimately, my wife paid a price for taking Plan B; she had stomach pains for a few days and difficult menstrual cycles for a couple of months. And yet that also is part of what it means to be an adult, to take responsibility for yourself and act.

We live in a culture that doesn't want to own up to this, that wants some vaguely parental-style authority - God, the government, even science - to tell us what to do. We live in a culture that doesn't want us to grow up, that wants policymakers to do the intellectual and emotional heavy lifting so we don't have to wrestle with the ambiguities.

Yet if my wife's and my circumstance suggests anything, it's that policy is an inappropriate mechanism for ethical decision-making because such decisions are suffused in shades of gray. Take us as an example. Plan B helped preserve our family.

David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times and this essay first appeared there. His e-mail is

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