As Long as it Takes

I’m writing this just a few hours after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it will no longer fight the court order that required the Federal government to remove age limits for purchasing over-the-counter (OTC) Emergency Contraception (EC). While there are still some important details to be worked out — including ensuring that lower-cost generic versions of EC are included in the OTC options —we’re celebrating this victory. If the Federal government made policy decisions about women’s access to contraception based solely on safety and effectiveness, EC would have been on drugstore shelves a decade ago. Instead, EC has been kept behind the counter, available only at certain stores, and only to women who could show government-issued ID proving they were at least 17 years old. Those restrictions were all about politics, not women’s health. We expected this from the Bush Administration, which originally blocked OTC access to EC back in 2004. But, we’ve been disappointed that the Obama Administration wasn’t willing to listen to its own scientists, who recommended this action (most recently) in 2011 — we’re glad that a Federal judge has finally forced the Administration to do the right thing and prioritize science over politics.

It took us a full decade to accomplish Federal policy that recognizes all women’s right to access EC free of politically imposed burdens. A decade is a long time, but some other struggles are taking even longer. Several articles in this newsletter touch on women’s health issues that should have been resolved years ago, but aren’t, either because political interference is getting in the way of good science, or because narrow-minded medical professionals resist recognizing the good science that already exists.

For example, Cesarean births are too common in the U.S., and have been for decades. Life-saving when needed, the routine use of Cesarean delivery doesn’t improve babies’ outcomes or women’s health. Many well-studied approaches have shown that it is possible to safely reduce unnecessary Cesareans, such as by midwife-attended births, and allowing women to try for a vaginal delivery after having had a Cesarean, for example. Too many women can’t access these safe and effective approaches to childbirth, however, because ObGyns have created policies that are based on their narrow professional interests, not women’s health needs. Our “Young Feminist” column describes these barriers, and “Fighting for the Health & Rights of Pregnant Women” examines the new wave of activist strategies to break down the current barriers to vaginal delivery and midwifery care.

And then there’s sexuality education — that’s a fight that’s been going on for more than just a few decades.  A hundred years ago, under the 1873 Comstock Act,  people who distributed information about contraception, or even had it in their possession, were routinely arrested. Politicians thought that sharing information about sexuality would lead to social problems. The ban on contraceptive information was declared unconstitutional in the 1930s, but the spirit behind the Act persists after all these years. Comprehensive sex ed improves the health and lives of young people and adults. It’s not fully supported by public policy, though, and most young people get very limited, and sometimes factually incorrect, health information in the classroom. A group of students have set out to change that. In “Sex Ed the City!” mai doan shares an inspiring example of students who are trying to create new policy in the Oakland school district. It may take another decade — or more — but we’ll keep fighting to ensure that every individual has access to the information, services, and support that are vital to making decisions about one’s own sexual and reproductive health needs.

This article was written by: Cindy Pearson

Cindy Pearson was the NWHN’s Executive Director from 1996 to 2021. One of the nation’s leading advocates for women’s health, Cindy often testified before Congress,  NIH and the FDA and was frequently featured in the news as a consumer expert on women’s health issues. When she retired, Cindy received a Congressional Resolution in honor of her outstanding contributions to the health of women and girls.