By Kate Michelman, President Emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America and author of With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.
When Roe v Wade became law of the land, we who had fought for so long believed it would be the threshold of broader protection of women’s health — of women’s rights. In our exuberance, we thought that we could establish abortion in its proper context, along the continuum of women’s reproductive health decision-making. We thought we could move on to other pressing health and equality issues, including bringing sexuality education to adolescents throughout the country — to help our young people understand the complexities of sexuality, of contraception and of the serious responsibility of childbearing.
That was almost forty years ago.
In the meantime we’ve learned the numbing lesson that what Justice Harry Blackmun wrote was not close to the final declaration of women’s reproductive liberty. It was not the beginning of the public’s embrace of educating our young to enable them to make responsible and informed decisions regarding sex and reproductive health. And it was certainly not an opening to the broad cast of reproductive options.
Instead of opening a dialogue that might ultimately lead to wide consensus about healthy reproductive choices, healthy sexuality, and healthy families, we have instead witnessed religious and culturally conservative voices demanding reversal. We are confronted with the word “abortion” writ red on walls wherever we turn. The opponents of abortion don’t want to discuss the social conditions that led to that decision. They talk of family values but those values seem not to include compassion, logic, or the willingness (ironically) to reach some obvious common ground with those of us who have long struggled to lessen the need for abortion by reducing unintended pregnancies.
Beyond abstinence, the most obvious way to reduce unintended pregnancy is comprehensive education about, and broad access to, contraception. Pretty simple. Decades ago, condoms were finally moved from behind the counter to full view. At first they were embarrassing to some of the public. But through education and wider availability of multiple forms of contraception, women achieved greater control of their reproductive lives. However crucial those methods were, they were not sufficient to meet every woman’s needs, including in cases of unprotected sexual intercourse.
The answer was emergency contraception. A high dose birth control pill that was safe, accessible, and very effective, if taken within 72 hours after unguarded sex.
Twenty years ago, a NARAL commission composed of some of the most important names in the fields of health, education, economics, law and science concluded that women of all ages needed ready access to a contraception that would prevent the possibility of a pregnancy after unprotected intercourse.
The story of science being held hostage to politics at the FDA and elsewhere under President George W. Bush is a familiar one. Finally, in 2006 Plan B was made available without prescription to women 18 or over — but only if they asked a pharmacist for the behind-the-counter product and provided proof of age. Women 17 or younger needed to procure a prescription from a physician — for a drug, again, that had to be taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. Three years later, a successful legal challenge led the FDA to drop that age to 17. Anyone younger still needs a prescription.
Having suffered through the Bush years and myriad setbacks to reproductive rights, we felt optimistic and secure with the arrival of the Obama administration. Here was a man who promised to bring the issue of women’s health into sharp focus — to elevate public understanding of its importance to society at large. A man who promised to put an end to politics holding science hostage.
Instead the pullbacks continued: in the Democratic Party the continuing erosion of long-standing commitments to legal abortion and public funding; the declining ratio of true “progressives” to Democrats recruited regardless of their stand on women’s reproductive rights (whatever it took to win); the “Stupak compromise” that caved to anti-abortion demands during the enactment of health care reform.
And now the latest setback: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s decision to reverse the FDA’s ruling that Plan B be available to women of all childbearing ages. And President Obama’s statement in support, which belittles what is at stake for women and feeds dangerous stereotypes and fears about adolescent sexuality.
What’s painful for women of my generation, who struggled with controlling our reproductive lives including the need for abortion when it was illegal, is that our daughters and granddaughters don’t seem to notice all the progress we have lost since. Consider the Hyde Amendment, which denies coverage for an abortion to women who depend on the federal government for health care. Add state legislatures and courtrooms where the guarantees of Roe are being quietly hollowed out. Where the avowed opponents of reproductive choice sentence women to delay abortions; to adhere to mandatory waiting periods; to get parental consent; to travel hundreds of miles to a clinic; to raise the money denied them under their health care coverage. Where doctors are threatened and lifesaving procedures are criminalized.
And now Secretary Sebelius’s unprecedented overturning of the FDA’s determination regarding Plan B raises the specter of science once again taking a back seat to election year politics. This from an administration that arrived with the pledge to honor scientific fact over all competing forces.
We await the Secretary’s response to a frank letter from 14 senators, led by Senator Patty Murray, requesting the medical and scientific data she relied upon for her action.
As usual, women at the margins are most hurt. The poor, the undereducated, women living in the dark corners of America. Adolescents trying to find their way in a confusing society fraught with impediments and intolerance and disregard.
These are the women most affected by limiting emergency contraception. Their voices are barely heard. From where policy makers sit, trading away meaningful access to Plan B”must appear just an asterisk.
It’s not. It’s the absolute right of any woman of childbearing age to have real access to safe emergency contraception if she is raped, or makes a decision she regrets, or neglects to use contraception, or a condom breaks. No woman should be forced to navigate political obstacles in order to prevent an unintended pregnancy and protect her health and future life.