Speech for Panel, “Sex Lies & Contraception”
“From Abortion Rights to Social Justice” Conference
Sponsored by Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program (CLPP), Hampshire College
April 7-9, 2006
It’s good to be here today, among women who are organizing for social justice and women’s rights.
First of all I should explain why the Morning-After Pill is such an important issue for the feminist movement to work on.
In order for women to have real power and equality with men, women need to be able to decide when and if we have children. This is a cornerstone of our freedom. It is central to planning our lives and determining our futures.
The Morning-After Pill (MAP) is an amazing tool in this regard. It’s a high dose of hormones that you can take up to 5 days after sex to prevent pregnancy. It’s a perfectly safe form of birth control with no serious side effects or health risks. We believe that having this pill at our fingertips- at the drugstore, on the shelf right next to aspirin and cold medicine- would give women enormous freedom. If a woman doesn’t want to get pregnant, she won’t have to. Abortion is also a vital tool for women, so our goal is not to stigmatize abortion- but the MAP is quicker and easier to use, less expensive and less intrusive.
However, the application for over-the-counter access has been blocked by the Bush Administration. The FDA has delayed a decision on this application for over 3 years.
This is despite the fact that the FDA’s own panel of scientific experts ruled unanimously that the MAP is safe for over-the-counter sales, and recommended in a 23-4 decision that it go over the counter. In 38 other countries around the world women can walk into a drugstore and buy this pill without a prescription. But here in the U.S. women have to jump through hoops to get it. As many of you know, it’s most effective within 24 hours after sex. The time and cost involved in getting to a doctor and then getting your prescription filled in this short window is outrageous.
So what are we doing to change this? The Women’s Liberation Birth Control has been organizing everyday women to fight for unrestricted, over-the-counter access.
We helped found the Morning-After Pill Conspiracy, a national coalition that has been leading this grassroots fight. The coalition includes Gainesville Area NOW (FL), The NOW Young Feminist Task Forces of Florida and Utah, Gainesville (FL) Women’s Liberation, South Carolina's New Morning Foundation, and the BCP’s parent organization, Redstocking Allies & Veterans. This collaboration across regions and with some of the founding groups of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) has made our movement stronger. One of the things I love about this coalition is that we build on our feminist history. We analyze how we got the rights we have now to figure out how we can best move forward.
Two of the most powerful tools of the WLM in the 60's were Consciousness Raising and Speak-Outs. We use these methods in our organizing today. Consciousness Raising, also known as CR, is a method of organizing where women answer questions about our oppression using personal experience. By comparing our experience we are able to analyze how we are oppressed as a group, who benefits, and what we can do to fight back. Speak-Outs are a public form of CR.
Back in 1969, feminists in Redstockings and NY Radical Women held the first abortion speak-out, testifying about their then-illegal abortions. This was very courageous, during a time when women could go to jail for having an abortion. This action had a profound effect because women knew they weren’t alone, and that having an abortion wasn’t a moral lapse- they simply didn’t want to have a child. The speak-out helped sparked feminist consciousness and soon abortion speak-outs spread all across the country. In NY State, where the movement was really strong, abortion was legalized in 1970, 3 years before Roe.
In our current CRs we have looked at our experience with the MAP. Women testified about:
*The outrageous cost and time involved. One woman testified that it cost $150 for the visit because her insurance didn’t cover gyn care. Another woman testified that her campus infirmary was closed on the weekend, she didn’t know where else to go so she crossed her fingers … and many more.
*When we need the MAP it is often because men resist wearing condoms. We incorporated a demand that men take responsibility for birth control and stop resist wearing condoms into our campaign.
*Another obstacle was all the hype about the MAP- thinking that it would cause you to throw up all day. With Plan B, a form of the MAP that has no estrogen, this is not likely to happen. In fact, most of us who have taken it, had little or no side effects.
*Other women talked about having to deal with judgmental, sexist attitudes from doctors and pharmacists.
When I need the MAP, it was because I got behind on my daily birth control pills. Then, I also wanted to take it when I was camping- we forgot condoms and used the withdrawal method, which I know is not the most effective- but I had no ability to get it, so I just had to cross my fingers. If it was over-the-counter I could have bought the MAP on my way to work, driven to the nearest gas station or drugstore.
Through CR, we concluded that over-the-counter (OTC) access would do the most to solve our problems. Incremental reforms, like forcing Emergency Rooms to supply the MAP, would only help a very small sliver of the population. In contrast, the OTC application would create change for every woman across the country.
In December 2003, we organized everyday women from New York, Florida, and Washington, D.C. to present testimony at the FDA’s public hearings on the over-the-counter application. Women spoke from their experience, sending the message that women are the experts on our bodies and lives. Many people present came up to us and said it was the most powerful part of the hearing, and it got lots of press. Since then we have held speak-outs in Washington DC, NYC and Gainesville, Florida.
Another important component of our campaign is civil disobedience. We have defied the prescription requirement by handing out the Morning-After Pill to women who want it at our actions. In doing so we are proud to follow in the footsteps of feminists like Margaret Sanger, who passed out information on birth control when it was illegal to do so. In January 2005, we held a rally and sit-in at FDA headquarters. We blocked access to the FDA, just like the FDA is blocking access to birth control for women. Nine of us were arrested in this action for women’s freedom.
We also sponsor the “Give Your Friend the MAP” Pledge. Almost 4000 women have signed this pledge saying they are willing to give out the MAP to a friend if she needs it. This is a tool to pressure the FDA and showcase how unjust the Rx requirement is. We are hoping to get over 4000 soon. We send every 100 signatures to the FDA.
Another part of our strategy is the legal strategy. I am lead plaintiff in Tummino V Eschenbach, a lawsuit against the Bush Administration’s FDA. The suit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Eight other women associated with the MAP Conspiracy, as well as two organizations, are co-plaintiffs in the suit. In a nutshell, the suit charges the FDA with discrimination against women and failing to follow normal agency procedures. Recently, the judge ruled that we are allowed to depose- question under oath- high ranking officials. In a couple of weeks Lester Crawford, former Commissioner, and Steve Galson, who signed the “non approvable” letter for the Plan B application will be questioned. This is a big break-through. At our sit-in we demanded that the decision makers come out and talk to us but they refused. Now these men have to explain their actions to the women of this country!
So this brings me to the question- why are Galson and Crawford ruling against science, ruling against their own advisory committees? We believe that it’s due to unprecedented pressure from the white house. The MAP is a key example of a wider right-wing assault on birth control. There are many examples of this. The Bush Administration is pushing abstinence-only education, which increases, not decreases, pregnancy. Republican legislatures around the country are trying to pass laws that would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions. Bush has been nominating extremist, anti-BC doctors like the infamous Dr. Hager to serve on FDA advisory committees.
Meanwhile, it’s no secret that Bush has done more to undermine abortion rights than any other president in history, from the D&X abortion ban to the appointment of anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court.
For years, the anti-abortion movement has been chipping away at our abortion rights through restrictions like parental consent laws and mandatory waiting periods. Now, they are using the same strategy to chip away at birth control. For example, the FDA claims that it's not safe for women under the age of 17 to buy the MAP over-the-counter. This goes against the medical evidence and violates young women’s rights. Plus, an age restriction would make the MAP “behind the counter.” Women would have to be IDd for birth control and give private information to a pharmacist in the middle of a drug store. Besides the fact, it’s evident that the FDA is using the age issue as a lousy excuse to hold up the application in bureaucratic limbo, thus denying all women access.
So what should feminists do? The WLBCP believes we need to vigorously challenge this roll-back of our rights and move forward with the pro-active demand for access to the MAP and abortion without restrictions. In the words of Lucinda Cisler, a pioneer of the WL Movement, “Its up to feminists to make the strongest and most precise demands on our lawmakers- who ostensibly exist to serve us. We will not accept insults and call them ‘steps in the right direction.’”
But if we really want to move forward we also need much more- for starters, a publicly funded universal child care, parental leave, and health care system. In order to get there, we need to stop playing defense- and go on the offensive with a pro-active agenda for women’s freedom. Just hearing about all the rollbacks to our rights is depressing- we need a platform that women can unite around. We also need to teach the importance of persistence- this is something Redstockings taught me. Women didn’t win the vote or the right to abortion overnight. If we get together and fight, we can win.
Our goal right now is to build towards a national action in DC in the fall, even bigger and better than the last. We hope you will join us. Thank You.