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Women improve access to birth control

Published Apr 30, 2009 7:26 PM

Another success has been achieved in the campaign to make emergency contraceptive (EC) available to all women who need it.

On April 22, the Food and Drug Administration, adhering to a court mandate, negated a prior Bush administration policy. The FDA agreed to expand availability of nonprescription “morning-after” contraceptive pills to 17-year-olds. This lowers it from the 18-year-old requirement, which was itself a concession wrested from the FDA in 2006.

On March 23, U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman ruled that nonprescription EC must be made accessible to all 17-year-olds within 30 days of his decision and that the FDA should assess lifting all age restrictions. He said “former FDA officials” had used “political considerations, delays and implausible justifications, to hold up over-the-counter sale of the birth control drug.” He cited “pressure emanating from the [Bush] White House.” (findlaw.com)

This victory reflects the strong organizing by reproductive rights, women’s and civil liberties organizations that have fought hard for years against the ultraright to win FDA approval of widely accessible, emergency birth control. This history is rife with struggle that included organized demonstrations, petitions, phone and e-mail campaigns, and lawsuits.

The struggle began in 2001, when the Association of Reproductive Health Professions and 65 other organizations petitioned the FDA to make EC nationally accessible without age limits.

The FDA stalled and then refused to do so in 2004 and 2006, despite its own scientists’ advice and expert panels’ votes for unrestricted EC availability for women of all ages. The agency violated its own internal procedures, in collusion with the insidious right wing in and out of the FDA (and in the White House!), which was pursuing an anti-birth-control agenda and sought to curtail women’s rights.

In 2006, after enormous legal and mass pressure, when congressional members even refused to approve a new FDA chief, the agency agreed that women of 18 and over could obtain nonprescription EC at drugstores. But as a concession to the ultraright, the FDA refused to extend this medical right to younger women. Pro-choice groups hailed the decision, but they saw it as only a partial victory, as it discriminated against youth.

The recent court decision was in the case of Tummino v. von Eschenbach—the FDA chief—that the Center for Reproductive Rights filed in 2005. It called for “unrestricted over-the-counter access [to EC] for all women.” Plaintiffs included the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, activists in the Morning-After Pill Conspiracy, parents and CRR itself. The Center for Constitutional Rights also represents some of the plaintiffs in this lawsuit.

The CRR charged the FDA with violating women’s rights to privacy and equal protection, and with discriminating against women. The suit cited internal FDA memos supporting over-the-counter EC for women of all ages. (ccrjustice.org)

Pro-choice, legal and medical organizations hailed the recent court decision as a nationwide victory for women, and for reproductive rights and contraceptive access, which also sends a message that medical decisions must be based on science, not right-wing ideology.

Annie Tummino, lead plaintiff and Morning-After Pill Conspiracy Coalition coordinator, who got arrested in this struggle for “Plan B” (EC's brand name), said, “We are thrilled that immediate access to the Morning-After Pill will be expanded for younger women and that the FDA will have to reconsider whether Plan B should be approved without any restrictions.” (mapconspiracy.org)

The U.S. has the highest rate of youth pregnancy among industrialized countries. One in three women under 20 becomes pregnant; 80 percent of these pregnancies are unplanned. (New York Times, April 22) Easy and quick availability of EC without prescription requirements is crucial. To be effective in preventing pregnancy, this strong dose of birth control pills must be taken within 72 hours of sexual relations. Pro-choice activists say that EC decreases unplanned pregnancies and abortions.

Age limitations for this medication end up discriminating against not only young women, but also those from nationally oppressed communities, low-income families and those in rural areas. When pharmacies keep EC behind counters and require identification to purchase it, or harass women, it is intimidating.

EC should be available to women of all ages—on demand—with no restrictions or obstacles, in every drugstore and health care facility. It’s a basic health care right.

Erin Mahoney, another plaintiff in the Tummino lawsuit, stressed: “In the streets and in court, women have been fighting for unrestricted access to the morning-after pill for years. We will keep fighting until the FDA does the right thing and allows all women to have access to [it] without any restrictions.” (mapconspiracy.org)