We have been fighting for a decade for something so basic: for women in America to have easy access to safe and affordable birth control, including the "morning-after pill" (sometimes referred to by the specific drug name of Plan B).
We won a key victory when a federal judge ordered the Obama administration to make the morning-after pill available other over-the-counter – in other words, to make it available without a prescription. Unfortunately, our fight didn't end there as the administration tried to delay, but last week the courts again ruled on the side of women's access to birth control, regardless of age.
There's been a lot of talk in the media about the role the judge is playing in the advancement of pill access. But the nine original plaintiffs in the case aren't just names on a piece of paper, we are dues-paying members of National Women's Liberation, and we've led a decade-long grassroots campaign to get the pill over-the-counter. The lawsuit was just one of many actions we took in this fight.
While US women have been losing on many other fronts, from the religious exception to birth control coverage in Obamacare to a wave of restrictive state abortion laws, we've been steadily gaining ground on the morning-after pill, even if it sometimes feels like Zeno's dichotomy paradox as we approach the finish line.
In 1999, the morning-after pill was made available in the US by prescription only, a ludicrous requirement for a safe contraceptive that is more effective the more quickly it is taken after unprotected sex.
Still, when we first set out to demand over-the-counter status, we were counseled that we should pursue a more reasonable goal, such as requiring that rape victims be provided the pill in hospitals, a demand that wouldn't even help most rape victims. Instead, we followed a cardinal rule of the radicals of the 1960's Women's Liberation Movement: we demanded what we really wanted, rather than toning down to be respectable.
We pledged to "give a friend the morning-after pill", in violation of the prescription requirement. We faxed our pledges to the Food and Drug Administration – over 4,400 faxes from women in every state. We threw the pill into the crowd at rallies, and gave it away as a door prize at fundraisers.
We insisted that women's voices be represented on the FDA's scientific panel considering whether the pill should be put over-the-counter. We testified about the mundane day-to-day slip-ups that made the morning-after pill an important tool for women. We told how the prescription requirement had delayed and deterred us, leading to abortions, which were much more expensive, traumatic and time-consuming.
We quoted the famous 1969 Redstockings abortion speakout: "We are the experts on our own lives," not doctors, not pharmacists, not the Food and Drug Administration director, or even President Obama.
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In the hearing, we unfurled a list of the 38 countries (now 63) where the morning-after pill was already available without a prescription. One testifier pointed out that when she visited France, health workers handed out the morning-after pill with condoms in bars. Why was the US so behind?
Our experiences were those of most women: broken or forgotten condoms or condoms men refused to wear. Yes, some of us have been raped. But we didn't want full access to the morning-after pill because we lived in fear, we wanted full access because the results of medical advances should be in our hands – the birthright of every woman and girl. Despite a 23 to 4 vote on the panel in our favor, the FDA delayed and delayed.
Fellow feminists worried that we were being too militant when we invited them to join us in blocking access to the FDA's building, the way the FDA was blocking our access to the morning-after pill.
They were wrong. Our testimonies and sit-in (nine of us were arrested in January 2005) gave encouragement to FDA staffers who disagreed with the agency's actions. The assistant FDA commissioner for women's health, Susan Wood, resigned in disgust in August that year.
When the FDA was finally ordered to place the pill over the counter for ages 17-and-up, we continued to demand full access for all ages. The powerful rely on half-measures to divide women – in this case younger from older – but it hasn't worked because we focused on how the restrictions affected all women. While creating unacceptable hurdles for younger women and girls, the regulation placed the pill behind the pharmacy counter for all women, who now had to show ID to prove their age.
We echoed abortion pioneer Lucinda Cisler, who responded to partial legalization of abortion in 1970, saying, "We will not accept insults and call them 'steps in the right direction.'"
Then, on 5 April, US Federal Judge Edward Korman ordered the administration to make the pill available on drugstore shelves for all ages. The FDA inched forward again, all the while insisting they weren't responding to the court order. They've now made one brand of pill available to customers 15 and older, to be placed on the shelf next to condoms. However, all purchasers will have to prove their age, and those younger than 15 still need a prescription. And a one-brand monopoly will keep high the already outrageous price.
Two days later, the Obama administration asked Korman to suspend his order while they appeal. The judge denied the request.
We're not waiting to see if the government pursues further appeals. On Tuesday, women in at least eight cities are holding flashmob actions to put the drug on the shelf where it belongs, with no age restrictions. Join us.