How We Won the Fight on the Morning-After Pill

BOSTON - FEBRUARY 27:  The Plan B pill, also known as the 'morning after' pill, is displayed on a pharmacy shelf February 27,
BOSTON - FEBRUARY 27: The Plan B pill, also known as the 'morning after' pill, is displayed on a pharmacy shelf February 27, 2006 in Boston, Massachusetts. Many states may have to deal with legislation that would expand or restrict access to the drug since the federal government has not made a decision to make the pill available without a prescription. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On April 5, feminists won an important skirmish in the war for birth control when a federal judge ordered the FDA to place the morning-after pill over-the-counter. As individual plaintiffs in the suit, we're celebrating.

But lest the victory be credited to -- or blamed on -- the judge, we should point out that the nine original individual plaintiffs aren't just individuals, we are also dues-paying members of National Women's Liberation, and all of us have led a decade-long grassroots campaign to get the pill over the counter. The lawsuit was just one of many actions we took to get to this point.
We think there are lessons in our strategy, because while women have been losing on many other fronts, from the religious exception to birth control coverage to a wave of restrictive state abortion laws, we've been steadily gaining ground on the morning-after pill.

When we first set out to demand over-the-counter status, we immediately ran into the timid politics of grant-reliant nonprofits. They counseled that we should pursue a more reasonable goal, such as requiring the 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. As a result, women joined us by the thousands.

We pledged to "give a friend the morning-after pill," in violation of the prescription requirement. We faxed our pledges to the FDA -- 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.

When we prepared to testify before the FDA's scientific panel considering whether the pill should be put over-the-counter, we were told that personal testimony was too subjective.

It's true, the panel barely considered the desires of women and girls. To bring them down to earth, we testified about the mundane day-to-day slip-ups that made the MAP an important tool for women. We told how the prescription requirement had delayed and deterred us, leading to abortions, which were much more expensive 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 FDA director, or the president.

In the hearing, we unfurled a floor-length scroll listing the 38 countries (now 63) where MAP 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 U.S. so behind?

We were told that the road to success came from referring only to extreme cases -- rape, incest -- to focus on the "emergency" in emergency contraception. We refused.

Our experiences were those of most women: Broken or forgotten condoms or condoms men refused to wear. We were neither irresponsible nor extreme. Yes, some of us have been raped. But we didn't want full access to the morning-after pill because we live 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, the FDA delayed and delayed.

Fellow feminists worried 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 17-and-up, we continued to demand full access for all ages, despite being told by establishment non-profits that we should be happy with our half-victory.

But we didn't stop. The half-measure kept unacceptable hurdles for younger women and girls, and it placed the pill behind the pharmacy counter for all women, who now had to show ID to prove their age.

Then there were pharmacists didn't want to dispense it for religious reasons. They will now be relieved of that moral burden because it will be on the shelf next to condoms, which they may also not like, but fortunately, don't control.

After more than a decade of feminist organizing, despite obstruction by both Republican and Democratic administrations, women have access to an effective, readily available tool to prevent pregnancy and better determine the course of our lives.

If the Obama administration doesn't appeal, the morning after pill will be over-the-counter in early May. We'll be campaigning to defend our victory, and win more, too. For example, the pill is way too expensive. Join us.

Jenny Brown and Stephanie Seguin are members of National Women's Liberation and individual plaintiffs in Tummino v. Hamburg.