Court upholds ban on D&X abortions, ignoring precedent

June 5, 2007

If you thought the new Supreme Court would be bad for women’s rights, you were right. In an April 18th decision the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on a widely-used abortion procedure. The decision was extraordinary in that a similar law came before the court in 2006 and was struck down by the court in a case called Stenberg vs. Carhart.

Feminist groups denounced the new 5 to 4 decision and said the law is designed to restrict women’s ability to get safe abortions. Additionally, the decision itself seemed aimed at providing arguments should the court wish to further restrict abortion in the future. For example, the decision mentions several times that the state has “a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life.”

Andrea Costello, lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights and organizer with Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement says, “The Court’s conservative majority leaves women out of the equation and allows the state’s supposed interest in ‘promoting fetal life’ and ‘life of the unborn’ to trump women’s right to equality and to control the direction of our lives. This is outrageous because women are the ones that become pregnant and should be able to make our own decisions about if, and when, to have children. Justice Ginsburg had it right when she forcefully pointed out that this decision attempts to push women into a time where we lacked full and independent legal status under the Constitution.” (www.redstockings.org)
During their confirmation hearings, the new justices appointed by George W. Bush, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, professed great respect for the principle of “stare decisis” (letting previous court decisions stand). But the Gonzales decision basically overturns the Stenberg decision made just a year ago, and contradicts the basis of a whole series of abortion-related cases going back to the early 1970’s.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, wrote the dissent, which was joined by Justices Souter, Stevens, and Breyer. She blasted the majority opinion, writing:

“Today’s decision is alarming. It refuses to take Casey and Stenberg seriously. It tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists… for the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman’s health.”

She characterized the court’s decision as a throwback to when women were not full citizens. “Women, it is now acknowledged, have the talent, capacity, and right ‘to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation.’ Their ability to realize their full potential, the Court recognized, is intimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.’ Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”

Ginsburg concluded, “In candor, the Act, and the Court’s defense of it, cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this Court,” a right she says the court has affirmed “with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives.”

The majority’s opinion seemed to be stretching to find reasons to uphold the law. It stated that the law’s “prohibition would be unconstitutional … if it subjected [women] to significant health risks.” Numerous members of the medical establishment testified in various cases before appellate courts that the D&X procedure is often the safest for the woman, while others said D&E was also safe. The court’s majority claimed that since “both sides have medical support for their positions,” the legislature could ban it. This bizarre finding accompanied a wholly new argument in which the court claimed that “Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child.” But this statement doesn’t lead the opinion anywhere, since the opinion claims (against the testimony of doctors) that D&X abortions are unnecessary and can in all cases be replaced by other abortion procedures. Watch for this bit of unsupported psychobabble to pop up in later opinions.

The court also tries to play doctor, arguing that since the ban applies to fetuses partially delivered while alive, killing the fetus in the womb with an injection might solve a doctor’s dilemma. The court cites doctors who do this. The dissenting opinion points out that medical testimony submitted in the case said this injection procedure is “almost always inappropriate to the preservation of the health of the woman” and “In some circumstances, injections are “absolutely [medically] contraindicated.”

The decision mentions several times that the state has “a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life,” and claims that this is “a central premise of Casey.” The problem is, the 1992 Casey decision also said that before fetal viability, “the State’s interests are not strong enough to support a prohibition of abortion or the imposition of a substantial obstacle to the woman’s effective right to elect the procedure.” Casey itself watered down Roe vs. Wade, but not as disastrously as the court is claiming.
As a result of this decision, the federal ban will take effect in May. Doctors may now feel that they are at risk of investigation when doing second trimester abortions (12 weeks or more). Even if they are obeying the law, this will be no guarantee that a grand jury will not be called by a malicious prosecutor, dragging clinic staff before a closed session to testify in detail about helping with this or that abortion.

This can only add to the tension and difficulty of doing abortion procedures in a country in which doctors are threatened and killed and clinics are bombed or driven out of business by legal or IRS targeting. For example, in Florida, in addition to the murders of Drs. David Gunn and John Bayard Britton, the abortion clinic in Ocala was bombed in 1989, Dr. James Pendergraft, an Ocala obstetrician who provided abortions at 3 Florida clinics, was jailed on trumped-up charges in 2001, and the Gainesville Women’s Health Center received frequent IRS scrutiny.

In addition to the pressure it puts on doctors, the decision also looks like an invitation to state legislatures to pass more restrictive laws and see what the court will uphold. The history of abortion rights since the high point of the women’s liberation movement has been to slowly circumscribe rather than to ban outright. As the Casey decision stated, “overruling Roe’s central holding would … seriously weaken the court’s capacity to exercise the judicial power and to function as the Supreme Court of a Nation dedicated to the rule of law.” In other words, not only would the flip-flop seem ludicrous, people wouldn’t stand for an outright ban, and therefore the court couldn’t overrule their previous decision. It will be up to the feminist movement to make sure this court, too, doesn’t become emboldened after this decision and imagine that it can get away with further weakening our rights.


Nominee Alito opposes abortion, worker’s rights

November 10, 2005

Although George W. Bush’s poll numbers are dropping like dead pigeons, he’s still got the power to do lasting damage. By nominating a man to the Supreme Court who seems to be to the right of everyone on the court with the possible exception of Clarence Thomas, Bush is trying to insure that his unpopular positions are codified in the law, the majority opinion of the country notwithstanding.

From the minute Bush nominated Judge Samuel Alito for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, it was clear that he was a favorite of the far right. His record of right-wing judicial activism and hostility to fundamental rights and liberties were already well documented.

Business Week reported when he was nominated that “one group is breathing a big sigh of relief: Corporate America. Of the dozen or so names on Bush’s rumored short list of high court candidates, Alito ranked near the top for the boardroom set.” Lorraine Woellert wrote November 1 at BusinessWeek.com, “The President’s new Supreme Court nominee has been a staunch proponent of limits on legal liability, employee rights, and federal regulation.”

Then, in mid-November, an application written by Judge Alito, recovered from the Reagan archives revealed his explicit opposition to the right to choose and affirmative action. In his own words, Alito declared “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.” In another recently discovered document, Alito declared that protecting citizens’ health, safety, and welfare isn’t the federal government’s job.

Alito wrote in his ‘Personal Qualifications Statement’ when applying to be an Assistant Attorney General under Ronald Reagan that “I am and always have been a conservative” and that “It has been an honor and source of personal satisfaction for me to serve… and to help to advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly. I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed, and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”

When Alito was a Justice Department lawyer in the 1980s, he urged President Reagan to veto legislation that would have protected consumers from crooked car dealers by making odometer fraud more difficult. Alito’s rationale for urging a veto of the Truth in Mileage Act is stunning: protecting Americans is not the federal government’s job. “After all,” wrote Alito in his memo recommending a veto, “it is the states, and not the federal government, that are charged with protecting the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.” President Reagan rejected Alito’s advice and signed the bill.

As research continues into Alito’s extensive record, here are some of his most troubling opinions, compiled by People for the American Way (http://pfaw.org):

1. Privacy: In dissent, Alito would have upheld the strip search of a mother and her ten-year old daughter, even though the warrant allowing the search did not name either of them. Judge Michael Chertoff, now head of the Department of Homeland Security, criticized that position as threatening to turn the constitution’s search warrant requirement into little more than a “rubber stamp.” Doe v. Groody

2. Community safety: Alito, dissenting in the case of United States v. Rybar, said that Congress does not have the power under the Commerce Clause to restrict the transfer and possession of machine guns at gun shows. In response to Alito’s assertion that Congress must make findings or provide empirical evidence of a link between a regulation and its effect on interstate commerce, the majority said, “Nothing in Lopez (an earlier Supreme Court case) requires either Congress or the Executive to play Show and Tell with the federal courts at the peril of invalidation of a Congressional statute.”

3. Family and Medical Leave: Writing for a unanimous court in Chittister v. Dep’t of Community & Economic Development, Judge Alito held that Congress did not have the authority to allow state employees to sue for damages under one section of the Family and Medical Leave Act. By contrast, the Supreme Court in a later case (Nevada Dep’t of Human Resources v. Hibbs) upheld the FMLA against a similar challenge; the Court’s decision was written by Chief Justice Rehnquist and joined by Justice O’Connor.

4. Reproductive Freedom: In dissent, Alito would have upheld a provision of Pennsylvania’s restrictive anti-abortion law requiring a woman in certain circumstances to notify her husband before obtaining an abortion. His colleagues on the Third Circuit and the Supreme Court majority disagreed and overturned the provision. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey

5. Racial Discrimination in the Workplace: In dissent, Alito argued for imposing an evidentiary burden on victims of employment discrimination that, according to the majority, would have “eviscerated” legal protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In particular, the majority said that Alito’s position would protect employers from suit even in situations where the employer’s belief that it had selected the “best” candidate “was the result of conscious racial bias.” Bray v. Marriott Hotels

6. Gender Discrimination in the Workplace: As a lone dissenter in a 10-1 decision of the full Third Circuit, Alito would have made it more difficult for someone alleging discrimination to present sufficient evidence to get his or her case to a jury. In particular, Alito would have prevented a woman claiming gender discrimination from going to trial, even where she had produced evidence showing that her employer’s claim that it had a legitimate reason to deny her a promotion was a pretext for the employer’s allegedly discriminatory actions. Sheridan v. E.I.DuPont de Nemours and Co.

7. Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: Alito cast the deciding vote and wrote the opinion in a 2-1 ruling rejecting claims by an African American defendant who had been convicted of felony murder by an all white jury from which black jurors had been impermissibly struck because of their race. The full Third Circuit reversed this ruling, and the majority specifically criticized Alito for having compared statistical evidence about the prosecution’s exclusion of blacks from juries in capital cases to an explanation of why a disproportionate number of recent U.S. Presidents have been left-handed. According to the majority, “[t]o suggest any comparability to the striking of jurors based on their race is to minimize the history of discrimination against prospective black jurors and black defendants . . . ” Riley v. Taylor


An Iraqi neighbor: Interview with Azza Showket

April 12, 2005

At a Gainesville church in January, after a presentation on the occupations in Iraq and Palestine, an elegant woman in the audience stood and thanked the group for being there. “I’m Iraqi,” she said, “and my mother is Palestinian.”

She spoke briefly of her rage at the occupation and destruction of the city she grew up in, Baghdad, and spoke of her feelings when she heard the news that the Abu Hanifah mosque, where her father is buried, was the site of a bombing and a battle.

“Would the US be in Iraq if all it grew and produced were turnips?” she asked me at the beginning of our interview.

Azza Showket’s father was jailed in Iraq for 3 years-for independence activities against the British.

“Who wants to be occupied?” Showket asks. “But Iraq’s history is one of occupation.” First the Ottoman empire, then the British, who she remembers propped up one king or regent after another, and whose policies came straight from Whitehall. The British hanged people in the public squares to warn others not to resist their rule.

Her father, a geographer, wrote textbooks while in jail. After the war he received his PhD in the U.S. Then, as secretary general, ran the University of Baghdad till his retirement in the seventies.

People in the U.S. have “so many mistaken ideas about Iraq,” Showket reflected. Iraq has a huge middle class, she said, compared to Egypt, where she also lived. In Egypt, there were very rich and very poor. In Iraq in those same years there was public education paid for by the government up through college, including housing. Medical care was publicly funded and free to patients. She and her friends traveled everywhere by bus; it was completely safe.

Another illusion people in the U.S. have is about the status of women in Iraq. Showket married someone from the U.S. and came to live here in the late 50s. She recalls traveling to Baghdad to visit in 1958 and getting together with her female school friends-among them were a gynecologist, two dentists, two pharmacists and two research chemists. At the time, she was a stay-at-home mom, and felt slightly embarrassed. All of them had gone to the same neighborhood school together in Baghdad and all had gone to college for free in Iraq.

She also recalls that in those years the hijab or veil went completely out. “During the 40s and 50s, they were all thrown away,” she recalls. Her mother, who was educated in Quaker schools in Palestine, never wore a veil.

“Any Arab anywhere will tell you that the occupation of Palestine is the biggest problem in the Middle East. As long as people are living in [refugee] camps, since 1948, three generations, what kind of aspirations and hope can you have?” Arabs see it as a priority to settle that bit of horror, she said. Many people in the U.S. think that whatever Israel does, it’s OK. “How can everything Israel does be OK?”

“The reign of Saddam was a reign of terror and horror,” Showket says. Then came 1990, “the arrogant invasion of Kuwait by Saddam,” and the years of economic sanctions. “And now the Americans… Iraqis wonder to Americans, what did we ever do to you?”

Showket still hopes to go to Iraq. A bomb was dropped near her sister’s house by U.S. forces in the last two months, she said. An elderly neighbor was killed in the attack. She is in contact by phone. “It’s worse than you can imagine, anything you imagine, it’s worse. There is sewage in the street, the garbage doesn’t get picked up, the water is contaminated, electricity is limited to few hours a day, many houses are in total ruin.”

“I wept to see people lining up to vote. The bloody and the brave. Whole families saying we’re going to do this, even though it was hard to tell what you were voting for.”

But it felt like a step, perhaps, towards ending the occupation.


Nine arrested at the FDA; Morning-After Pill decision pending

January 12, 2005

Sixty women gathered and nine were arrested Jan. 7 trying to get the FDA to make the Morning-After Pill an over-the-counter drug in the U.S.

The FDA’s decision, expected by Jan. 20, will be the culmination of a many-year application process for the pill, which carries the brand name Plan B. Similar pills have been prescribed since the mid-70s to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex.

Currently, the pill is only available by prescription, a requirement that feminists charge is ludicrous because the drug is most effective to prevent pregnancy in the first 24 hours after unprotected sex. (It may be used, with declining effectiveness, up to 120 hours after sex.) At the FDA on Jan. 7th, women testified about trying to obtain a prescription and fill it in the narrow time window. “I had to brave game-day traffic to get to the infirmary, which it turned out was closed,” Gainesville Area NOW’s Stephanie Seguin recalled. “When I lived in France, they were passing it out in bars with condoms.”

At a December 2003 hearing by a combined FDA advisory panel, the FDA’s experts agreed. They voted 23 to 4 that the drug should go over the counter, and 27 to 0 that the drug was safe. Plan B is one-time a higher dose of birth control, equivalent to about 4 birth control pills, but because it is not taken on a sustained basis, the side-effects from regular birth-control pills are not present. Around 1 in 5 women experience nausea or jitteriness.

The FDA normally follows the recommendations of its advisory boards. But after political pressure from Republicans in Congress, the FDA waffled, and asked the drug company, Barr, to resubmit its application with a provision for blocking women under 16 from getting the pill without a prescription.

At the January press conference, feminists who formed the “Morning-After Pill Conspiracy” to push for the drug to be over the counter committed civil disobedience by passing the prescription drug to one another, and to two women who asked for it after the event. It is illegal for laypeople to give out a prescription drug. The Morning-After Pill Conspiracy says that over 2,000 women have signed pledges to defy the prescription requirement and give the Morning-After Pill to any friend who needs it. These pledges, MAP Conspiracy reported at the press conference, have been faxed to the FDA as part of the campaign.

The Morning-After Pill Conspiracy opposes any age limit or requirement of proof of age, stating, “If you’re old enough to get pregnant, you’re old enough to decide you don’t want to be pregnant.” Further, they say, the age requirement would effectively put the Morning-After Pill “behind the counter” for all women, requiring every woman who wants the pill to ask for it from a pharmacist and prove their age.

The nine were arrested when they asked to see the decision-maker in the case, Acting Director Steven Galson, but a meeting was offered with only 5 people with another official. The protesters demanded to see Galson, and sat down. They were arrested and charged with Disorderly Conduct. A court date has not yet been set.

Four Gainesville women were among the nine, who represented groups including Gainesville Area NOW and Campus NOW chapters, the Florida NOW Young Feminist Task Force, the New York Reproductive Rights Taskforce, and Redstockings Allies & Veterans, which is based in New York City.

More on MAP Conspiracy can be found at http://www.mapconspiracy.org or you can email mapconspiracy04@hotmail.com.


One million march for women’s reproductive rights

May 15, 2004

Between 800,000 and 1.15 million women, girls, and male allies rallied and marched in Washington, D.C.. on April 25. It was the largest women’s rights march in the history of the U.S., and it focused not just on abortion rights, contraceptives, and sex education, which have been repeatedly attacked by the Bush administration, but also on moving forward to health care, childcare, and full equality for women. “Feminists, we are calling you” read one sign, and they came from every state in the union.
“This historic march is sending an unmistakable message: women’s rights and women’s lives are non-negotiable,” stated Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority. “We are building an expanded and inclusive movement that will make women’s reproductive rights-just like social security-a third rail of politics.”
Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America said “They’re not just after abortion rights. This is a full-throttle war on your very health–on your access to real sex education, birth control, medical privacy, and life-saving research.”
“We envision a day… when every person has access to comprehensive and affordable health care,” said Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health, a co-sponsor of the march. “That is reproductive justice!”
The march was noticeably larger than similar marches organized by feminists and reproductive rights groups in 1989 and 1992, which drew 3-500,000 and 6-800,000 respectively. Those marches were responding to pending Supreme Court decisions and their size, energy, and message are credited with saving the parts of the Roe vs. Wade decision which are still in effect.
March organizers used standard crowd estimate methods, march participants were counted in designated grids on the National Mall. They said they verified this count by assigning 2,500 volunteers to stand at key entry points and count people by placing stickers on participants as they entered these entry points. By their count, 1.15 million people participated.
This year the march was most immediately responding to Congress passing and Bush signing a ban on the mischaracterized ‘partial birth abortion,’ a political term whose definition in the law is so vague it could be applied to most abortions. The law is now being challenged in court. As part of the court case, Attorney General John Ashcroft demanded hospital records of women who had had the types of abortion apparently banned by the law. Outrage from feminists, resistance from the hospitals involved, and then the march, apparently led Ashcroft to drop this line of inquiry on April 30.
Bush adminstration attacks on abortion rights also included the passage of the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, defining federal crimes which harm a pregnant woman as harming two individuals. National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy said, “This is a deceptive ploy that does nothing to increase protections for pregnant women, who are at increased risk of domestic violence.” A similar law which would have increased the penalties but did not include a fetal ‘personhood’ clause was defeated, showing that the law is not aimed at protecting pregnant women or their pregnancies, but is laying the legal groundwork to claim that embryos and fetuses are separate legal entities apart from the women who bear them.
And Bush reinstated and then expanded the Reagan-era “Global Gag Rule” which prevents international agencies that receive any family planning funds from the U.S. even informing their patients that abortion exists, let alone providing them. The ban means that family planning organizations that refuse to buckle under are starved for funds.
Morning-After Pill blocked
Then on May 6 the Bush Administration took another swipe at U.S. women when the acting Food and Drug Administration chief, Lester Crawford, announced that he was going against the FDAs own experts and advisory panels to keep the Morning-After Pill from U.S. women. The FDA’s decision sent the makers of “Plan B” (levenogestrel) back to the drawing board. Barr pharmaceuticals and its predecessor, Women’s Capital Corporation, had spent several years in the application process to get this after-sex contraceptive approved for over-the-counter sale. It is currently available in the U.S. only by prescription.
Prospects had looked good in December, when a combined FDA advisory panel voted 23 to 4 to approve the drug, noting that it is ‘extraordinarily safe.’ Public testifiers at the December 16 FDA hearing, including many feminists from Gainesville, pointed out that the Morning After Pill is available without a prescription in 38 other countries, including Canada and England. By contrast, many women testified that here in the U.S. it was impossible or near-impossible to get the drug in a timely manner since the prescription requirement forced them to make a doctor’s appointment, see the doctor and pay for the appointment, obtain a prescription, find a pharmacist who will fill it, and pay for the drug, all while the clock is ticking. The Morning After Pill (also known as ’emergency contraception’) is most effective if taken in the first 24 hours after unprotected sex. It can be used, with diminishing effectiveness, up to 120 hours after sex. (The Morning-After Pill is frequently confused with RU-486, the so-called “French Abortion Pill” but it is not the same medication. The Morning-After Pill prevents pregnancy, which is defined medically as the moment a fertilized egg implants in the womb. If a woman is already pregnant, the pill has no effect.)
The FDA told Barr that it needed to study and report on the effects of the pill on women under 16, or it could devise a regime whereby all women would be forced to present a proof-of-age in order to buy the drug, and those under 16 would be required to get a doctor’s prescription.

Feminists have responded that the question of young women is a red herring, which is being used to block access for all women. “If you’re old enough to get pregnant,” the “Morning After Pill Conspiracy” said in an April 25 press release, “you’re old enough to decide that you don’t want to be pregnant.” Doctors on the advisory panel rejected these arguments about younger women when they were broached at the hearings in December, saying that there is no evidence of different effects in younger women. It was pointed out by panelists that pregnancy among early teens is the alternative to young women having access to the Morning-After Pill.
At the March for Women’s Lives, organizations making up the “Morning-After Pill Conspiracy,” including Redstockings Allies and Veterans, two Gainesville NOW chapters, and Gainesville Women’s Liberation, held a mini-rally during the main rally. Hundreds gathered around as about a dozen women testified about rushing around trying to get the Morning-After Pill after a condom broke during sex, about the prohibitive costs associated with a doctor’s visit, and about the tragicomic idea that anyone can get a doctor’s appointment in 24 hours, especially starting on a Friday or Saturday night. Expressing their view that the Morning-After Pill should immediately be made over-the-counter, they defied the prescription law by passing pills to friends and finally by flinging boxes of “Plan B” into the waiting crowd.
They invited the crowd to join them in signing the Morning After Pill Conspiracy pledge to defy the prescription requirement (and break the law) by giving a friend the Morning-After Pill whenever she needs it. About 800 signed pledges, which the groups are now sending to the FDA in protest of the decision. (Pledges can be viewed and signed at http://www.mapconspiracy.org).
A group of physicians with the Access Project also brought their prescription pads and wrote prescriptions for any woman who wanted one. They scribbled furiously to keep up with a line of waiting women. The doctors were illustrating a point which was repeated over and over in the FDA’s advisory hearings–no physical evaluation or instruction from medical professionals is needed to safely and effectively use this medication.
Several states have passed laws to put the morning-after pill in a ‘behind the counter’ status, with women having to ask for it from a pharmacist, but not required to get a physician’s prescription. In December the FDA advisory panels heard that the program has been a flop in California, mostly because pharmacies find the process too cumbersome and 86% don’t participate.
Additionally, studies by Planned Parenthood in New York and an ACLU study in Pennsylvania showed that pharmacists are ill-informed about the Morning-After Pill and gave all kinds of wrong advice about it when asked in phone surveys. Additionally, pharmacists have refused to fill prescriptions for the drug on ‘moral’ grounds, as in a widely publicized case in Texas where a rape victim tried to get her prescription filled and was turned away by an Eckerd pharmacist. The pharmacist and two co-workers were later fired over the incident. At the University of Florida infirmary women have had problems since at least the early 90s getting their prescriptions filled, and a pharmacist at UF was fired after feminists exposed and protested his refusal to fill women’s morning-after pill prescriptions. Feminists say that a switch to over-the-counter status, like condoms and cold medicine, would remove these unnecessary obstacles.
The Morning-After Pill Conspiracy released the following after the FDA’s decision was announced:
“For the past 10 months, a coalition of feminist groups called the Morning-After Pill Conspiracy has been campaigning for over-the-counter access to this safe, effective form of birth control. Since February we have conducted civil disobedience in New York and Florida and Washington DC by giving out the Morning-After Pill in front of the public and press. On April 25, we defied the prescription requirement again by passing out the Morning-After Pill at the March for Women’s Lives in Washington D.C. Approximately 1,500 women all over the country have signed our pledge promising to break the law by giving their prescription-only Morning-After Pills to friends whenever they need it.
“We will hand-deliver our pledge signatures to the FDA from more than a thousand women who plan to blatantly disregard the prescription requirement for the Morning-After Pill. In the tradition of women like Margaret Sanger, who broke the law by passing out information on birth control when it was illegal to do so, the members of the MAP Conspiracy pledge to bring our civil disobedience directly to the FDA- to illegally pass out the Morning-After Pill on their doorstep- in protest of this unjust ruling.
“The Morning-After Pill is one tool that women can use to control our bodies and direct our lives, a tool which the FDA continues to keep from millions of women who can’t afford, don’t have time, or aren’t able to get MAP from their doctors. Women of all ages should have unrestricted, over-the-counter access to the Morning-After Pill; we will continue to fight for this right by whatever means necessary.”
The demonstration at the FDA is planned for July 2. Go to http://www.mapconspiracy.org for more information and updates, or call the Gainesville Area or Campus NOW chapters at 377-2301.


Feminists march for abortion rights and freedom

April 8, 2004

It’s hard to keep track of all the reasons to oppose the current occupants of the White House, but for feminists, several recent assaults on women’s right to control our bodies stand out.

Women and men from all over the country will converge in Washington, D.C. on April 25 for the “March for Women’s Lives” to protest these policies and demand something better. Busses will be traveling from Gainesville.

Among his many achievements in restricting women’s reproductive liberty, Bush has the distinction among Republicans and Democrats alike of signing the first federal law restricting abortion since Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court in 1973.

This is the mis-named “Partial Birth Abortion Act,” which was passed through Congress in October 2003. (Clinton had vetoed a similar measure.) The ban is so vague as to include most abortions, although legal watchers say it won’t stand up in court. Indeed, immediately after Bush signed the law, federal judges in San Francisco, New York City and Nebraska issued temporary restraining orders preventing DOJ from enforcing the ban.

The National Organization for Women described the law as a travesty–“the theft of our reproductive freedom and our constitutional rights, and this administration’s complete disregard for the welfare of women across this country.”

“The so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban is a dangerous piece of legislation that ultimately seeks to outlaw even the safest abortion procedures. The truth is that the term ‘partial birth abortion’ doesn’t exist in the medical world–it’s a fabrication of the anti-choice machine. The law doesn’t even contain an exception to preserve a woman’s health and future fertility, and it will have a chilling effect on the ability of physicians to offer women the best, most appropriate medical care at all times.”

The Bush administration gave the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice the task of enforcing the new ban on abortion procedures. “Despite the fact that three federal judges have already blocked enforcement of the law (a nearly identical state law was declared unconstitutional just three years ago), the Justice Department, under John Ashcroft, said it ‘will continue to strongly defend the law … using every resource necessary,'” according to the Associated Press.

The decision to charge the civil rights division rather than the criminal division with enforcement of the law provoked outcry. Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee accused Ashcroft of “perverting the federal government’s role in promoting civil rights.” In a letter to Ashcroft, House Democrats said “it is Orwellian that you would have the civil rights division enforce a law which has been essentially found by the Supreme Court to violate the civil rights of millions of American women.” Groups opposing abortion rights see gaining civil rights for fetuses as another step towards the eventual overturn of Roe v. Wade.
(Associated Press, “Government Promises to Defend New Abortion Law,” Nov. 7, 2003; The Guardian, “Fury at Bush’s Civil Rights Policing of Abortion Ban,” Nov. 8, 2003.)

Then Ashcroft’s Justice Department, claiming that it needed to bolster its case for the law, demanded the medical records of patients who underwent abortions in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan. The records requested were those of patients of the doctors who brought the suits challenging the law. However, a U.S. Chief District judge in Chicago quashed the subpoenas on the grounds that medical privacy rights were at issue. Illinois has a strict medical privacy law. Then a U.S. District judge in New York ruled that the Department of Justice may subpoena the medical records.

“Critics of the subpoenas accuse the Justice Department of trying to intimidate doctors and patients involved in the contested type of abortion,” the Associated Press reported on February 13.

Kate Michelman, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, “Americans will be shocked to find out that the Bush administration has taken the position that there is no right to medical privacy,” adding, “To assert that the government has an unfettered right to root around in our private medical records is beyond appalling” (Washington Post, 2/13).

Every embryo a victim
Then, on March 25, 2004, the U.S. Senate passed the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, the first federal legislation giving legal rights to a fetus or embryo from the earliest moments of pregnancy. The bill provides additional penalties in federal crimes.

After Bush signed it on April 1, the National Organization for Women reacted strongly: “George W. Bush and his anti-abortion allies are gloating today because they have exploited the devastating murder of a woman [Laci Peterson] to attack the reproductive rights of all women,” said NOW President Kim Gandy. “Giving a fetus–even an embryo–the same legal rights as the pregnant woman will undermine the right to abortion as guaranteed under Roe v. Wade.”

In a press release, NOW stated: “The sponsors of this cynical bill have devised a strategy to redefine the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection of the law to ‘persons,’ which has never been defined to include fetuses. The inventive language of this bill covers “a member of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development.” Such a definition of “person” could entitle fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses to legal rights–ultimately, setting the stage to legally reverse Roe.”

People for the American Way, a civil liberties group, said that the underlying motive of the bill was revealed when anti-choice members of Congress “rejected substitute bills that would have established a separate crime with equally harsh penalties for violence against a pregnant woman, without establishing “personhood” for the fetus.

“Evidently, anti-choice legislators in Congress are not interested in protections for pregnant women unless they can chip away at their reproductive freedom at the same time. Indeed, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has admitted as much, saying that defenders of reproductive rights ‘say it undermines abortion rights. It does undermine it.'”

“We must address the problem of violence against women with increased funding for education and for enforcement,” said Gandy. “Any injury inflicted on a woman, pregnant or not, should be prosecuted as a crime against the woman.” Gandy argued that the law does nothing to increase protection for pregnant women, who, she pointed out, “are at increased risk of domestic violence.”

Safe post-sex contraceptive stalled again
After years of stalling, the FDA finally agreed to hear arguments last December for making the Morning-After Pill a non-prescription drug, like aspirin. (The Morning-After Pill, under the brand name Plan B(tm), is a safe quadruple dose of birth control pills that can prevent conception up to 4 days after unprotected intercourse.) The Morning After Pill is already non-prescription in over 40 countries, but here it requires a doctor’s appointment and a prescription, making it almost impossible to get in time. “This is a drug that is most effective in the first 24 hours after sex,” advocates point out. “Who can get a doctor’s appointment in that time?”

Bush had been trying to pack anti-abortion, anti-sex education, anti-contraception advocates on the FDA advisory committee that hears reproductive health issues. When he tried to appoint W. David Hager chair of Reproductive Health Drugs advisory committee, feminist outrage made him back down. Hager was appointed to the committee but not made chair.

When a combined advisory committee heard the Morning After Pill argument December 16, Hager was one of the few “no” votes in an overwhelming 23 to 4 vote recommending that the FDA to approve the Morning After Pill for over-the-counter sale. The FDA, under pressure from the White House on one side, and feminists and health professionals on the other, skipped one deadline for a final decision Feb. 16 and has delayed making the decision for 90 days. It ordinarily follows the recommendations of its advisory committees without hesitation.

Bush and the “Gag Rule”
We knew Bush was a foe of women’s reproductive rights when he first got into office. Remember the global ‘gag rule’? Bush reinstated this policy in 2001 as one of his first acts in office. It prohibits any organization receiving population funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development from using those or other funds to provide or even discuss abortion.

The gag rule led to shortages in contraceptives due to large cuts in funding to organizations that refused to sign the rule. By 2002, the gag rule had cut off shipments of USAID-donated supplies to 16 developing countries, because the only recipients in those countries were members of the International Planned Parenthood Federation which lost $20 million in USAID funds because it refused to comply with the policy. Condoms procured with HIV/AIDS funds are not subject to the rule, but critics of the rule say that, in practice, organizations that refused to sign the rule have not been able to get funds earmarked for HIV/AIDS prevention. Hillary Fyfe, chair of the Family Life Movement of Zambia, asserts, “I think they are killing these women, just as if they are pointing a gun and shooting. There is no difference.”

Women’s eNews reports that the global gag rule “has led to closed clinics, cuts in healthcare staff and dwindling medical supplies, leaving women, children and families without access to vital healthcare services.” (Source: Women’s eNews, “Report: Global Gag Rule Spurring Deaths, Disease,” Sept. 25, 2003.)

That worked so well Bush then expanded the policy in an executive memorandum in September 2003, to include family planning funds administered by the U.S. Department of State. Bush’s latest action extends the gag rule to all assistance for voluntary population programs funded through the State Department. The Center for Reproductive Rights reports that “this drastic expansion means that more of the world’s most vulnerable women, including refugees, will be denied basic health care services.” (Sources: Executive Memorandum, “Assistance for Voluntary Population Planning,” August 29, 2003; Center For Reproductive Rights, “Expanded Global Gag Rule Limits Women’s Rights and Endangers Their Well-Being,” Sept. 5, 2003.)

Marching April 25
Reviewing the wide-reaching implications of the “Partial Birth Abortion” ban, NOW stated, “The federal courts and, ultimately, the Supreme Court, may be our only recourse to invalidate this regressive law. Our courts are not yet controlled by conservative extremists, but that is Bush’s goal. Right now, the Supreme Court narrowly supports a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions. By the time the challenge to this law reaches the Supreme Court, we could have one or two new justices who do not believe in a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. Once that final piece of the puzzle is in place–and the right-wing controls all three branches of government–Roe v. Wade will only be a memory.

“Women’s rights activists across the country are recommitting ourselves to keeping abortion safe, legal and accessible. We will not allow Bush and his buddies to erode our rights. We will take our case to the courts, to the streets and to the ballot box. We will restore women’s right to privacy and their access to critical medical procedures; we will march on Washington … on April 25 to save women’s lives; and we will remember in November.” (For more information on NOW, visit www.now.org)


MORNING AFTER PILL: Over the Counter or Behind the Counter?

December 4, 2003

“Because no one else [except the Women’s Liberation Movement] is going to cry out against these restrictions, it is up to feminists to make the strongest and most precise demands upon the lawmakers—who ostensibly exist to serve us. We will not accept insults and call them “steps in the right direction.” —Lucinda Cisler, 1970.*

It is obvious to most people that the current prescription-only status of the Morning-After Pill must be changed. It requires women to get (and pay for) a doctor’s appointment, which is a joke for a drug most effective to prevent pregnancy when taken within 24 hours—and fairly effective up to 72 hours—after sex.

But some have argued that making the Morning-After Pill an over-the-counter drug, like aspirin and cold medicine, is going too far, and that although the Morning-After Pill is safe, women should be able to obtain it only through a “pharmacist prescription,” a status sometimes known as “behind the counter.”

We completely disagree. We believe the Morning-After Pill should be immediately made an over-the-counter drug, and that it should be affordable and accessible to women of any age and in all parts of the country. We believe that the U.S. should follow the lead of dozens of other countries which already provide women access to this safe backup birth control method without any restriction.

The Morning-After Pill is marketed under the brand names Preven® and Plan B® (levonorgestrel) and is also known as “post-coital contraception” or “emergency contraception.” Plan B®, the progesterone-only Morning-After Pill, consists of two pills to be taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse to prevent unintended pregnancy. The first pill is taken immediately and the second 12 hours later.

Why not pharmacist prescription “behind the counter” status?

1. Pharmacist prescriptions will force a woman to stand in the middle of a drug store, in front of other customers, and discuss the last time she had sex, when her last period was, and other private information. This will discourage a lot of women from getting it.

2. Pharmacists are not necessarily knowledgeable about the Morning-After Pill. In studies conducted in New York and Pennsylvania, pharmacists had alarmingly little knowledge of the Morning-After Pill, and many disseminated misinformation about it. In a 2003 survey of 315 Pennsylvania pharmacists:

•13 percent of the pharmacists incorrectly stated the time parameters for using emergency contraception.

•5 percent said it was not available in the United States.

•28 percent did not know a brand name.

•13 percent confused emergency contraception with the abortion pill or thought it caused an abortion.

(“Study: Pharmacists not informed on morning-after pill,” Marie McCullough Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 21, 2003.)

Among 100 New York City pharmacists surveyed by Planned Parenthood in August and September of 1998: “Thirty-seven pharmacists received poor ratings for their knowledge of emergency contraception. A poor rating means the pharmacist either knew nothing about emergency contraception or only provided incorrect information about the treatment. Two-thirds, or sixty pharmacists, provided some type of incorrect information about emergency contraception. Only 3 received an excellent rating, correctly providing all the key facts about emergency contraception.” (www.ppnyc.org/new/publications/executive.html)

3. Some pharmacists will counsel women that they don’t need the Morning-After Pill based on where they are in their menstrual cycle. We know pharmacists will do this because this is the experience we have now, with doctors and physicians assistants who tell us we do not need the Morning-After Pill for various reasons.

• Some women report being left alone in a room with a calendar by their medical practitioner, and told to try to figure out the date of their last menstrual period. If they can’t remember, they’re told, they can’t have the Morning-After Pill.

• Women have been told by medical professionals that they shouldn’t put “all those chemicals” (meaning the Morning-After Pill) in their bodies, and are then told they should get on daily birth control pills. (Daily oral contraceptives can have serious long-term side-effects not associated with the extremely short duration dose of hormones in the Morning-After Pill).

• In 1998 it was revealed that the infirmary at the University of Florida required women to fill out a form when giving them the Morning-After Pill. This form required women to agree to take a regular form of birth and asked women if they had been sexually assaulted. Because this was a medical form women did not feel they could opt out of certain questions and were coerced into revealing information not necessary for distribution of the Morning-After Pill.

5. Women should be able to have the Morning-After Pill around before a problem arises. But we don’t know whether pharmacists will be willing to give women the Morning-After Pill to have “just in case.” Based on our experience with other medical professional, we suspect that some will and some won’t, and again our wellbeing will be in the hands of someone else.

If the Morning-After Pill is over-the-counter, women will make sure they have a current dose in their medicine cabinets at home, for themselves and friends who need it.

Although some drugstores are open 24 hours a day, most do not have pharmacists on duty more than 10 or 12 hours a day. And when a pharmacist is there, there is frequently a long line for service. In consciousness-raising women talk about the difficulty of getting off time during work or school hours to obtain the Morning-After Pill as quickly as possible. The terrible squeeze for time can be explained by the fact that in U.S., we already work the longest hours in the industrialized world, and women are still burdened with extra unfair responsibilities at home. We should be able to send a man to pick up the Morning-After Pill for us. This is only feasible if the drug is over-the-counter.

6. In our experience, many pharmacists will refuse to dispense the Morning-After Pill because of personal religious beliefs.

In 1991, a pharmacist at the infirmary at the University of Florida in Gainesville was discovered to be refusing to fill women’s prescriptions for the Morning-After Pill. Feminists protested and the university was eventually forced to ask for his resignation. But there was evidently still a problem as the University of Florida then had to institute a system to call another pharmacist if the pharmacist on duty refused to fill these prescriptions.

How widespread is this problem? A phone survey of 315 Pennsylvania pharmacists reported in the October 2003 issue of the journal Contraception noted that of the 65% of “pharmacists surveyed who could not fill a same-day prescription, 7 percent cited personal beliefs as the reason, while 6 percent said it was against store policy.” (“Study: Pharmacists not informed on morning-after pill,” Marie McCullough Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 21, 2003.)

There is even an organization, Pharmacists for Life International, founded by pharmacists who refused to fill women’s prescriptions for oral contraceptives “because they believed they cause abortion,” according to a 2002 article by Patti Miller. “The organization… has been effective in expanding the right of health professionals to refuse to provide reproductive health services such as contraception and emergency contraception. The president of PFLI is Karen Brauer, a pharmacist who was fired by Kmart in 1996 after she lied to a patient that an oral contraceptive was out of stock to avoid filling a prescription.” (Patti Miller, “Do No Harm: Far-Right Medical Groups and Religion Don’t Mix,” full article available at: http://www.rcrc.org/news/commentary/do_no_harm.htm)

7. Some argue that women who are raped should be encouraged to seek counseling and medical help, and if the Morning-After Pill is available without talking to a pharmacist, women will be less likely to get this counseling.

We say no woman should have her right to control her body held hostage until she reveals a sexual assault. We must be allowed to assess all our options in these difficult situations, and women know that we are often blamed and punished when we come forward.

Conclusion

Women know that often when we reveal that we have had sex we are stigmatized as a “slut.” This is especially prevalent against young women and unmarried women. Men face no such stigma, although they often perpetuate it against women. Requiring women to reveal the details of sexual activity to a pharmacist—who may be a stranger, or worse, an acquaintance—is humiliating and unnecessary unless there is an overwhelming safety reason.

There isn’t, according to the 60 organizations, including the American Medical Association, that support over-the-counter status.

We learned from the Boston Women’s Health Collective (authors of Our Bodies, Ourselves) that those who are set up as experts often serve to keep information from us. Women are the experts on our situation, and we can quickly become experts on medical issues that affect our lives.

We learned from Redstockings**, the radical feminists who first spoke out about their then-illegal abortions in 1969, that women are the experts on our lives. Not men, not the church, not legislators, not doctors or hospital boards or pharmacists or counselors, no matter how well-meaning or well-educated.

December 4, 2003

Gainesville Women’s Liberation

P.O. Box 2625 Gainesville, FL 32602

(Comments? Write us)

*The quote is from “Abortion Law Repeal (Sort of): A Warning to Women.” Lucinda Cisler was chair of the NOW Taskforce on Reproduction and Its Control (1969-1971) and founder and first secretary of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL), now the National Abortion Rights Action League.

**For more on this history, visit the Redstockings Women’s Liberation Archives for Action, http://www.redstockings.org