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Native American Activists Fight for Plan B Access

Most press coverage celebrating recent changes to the federal law around Plan B has left at least one group behind: Native Americans.

A still from Young Lakota, a documentary about women's activism in South Dakota.
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The following piece was originally posted on, Reproductive Justice  Reporting Project of the  Media Consortium  and the  Association for Alternative Newsmedia  that will focus on the accessibility of Plan B.

“Every other race of women in this country has access to emergency contraceptives as an over- the-counter, except for Native women,” says Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center, who is fighting to change that reality. Most press coverage celebrating recent changes to the federal law around Plan B has left at least one group behind: Native Americans. That's why Native American activists are still pushing the slow-moving bureaucracy at the Indian Health Service to make Plan B available over-the-counter for women of all ages. And while progress is being made, challenges to accessing emergency contraception remain in Native communities, where high rates of sexual assault make the need particularly dire.

Sarah Mirk: This is Sarah Mirk. I’m in the Walgreens on the corner of 33 rd and Killingsworth in Northeast Portland, and I’m looking for Plan B One-Step, which is supposed to be available over-the-counter. And I’m in the aisle that has lots of condoms and lube and Vagisil and somewhere around here should be Plan B. There it is, right there. It’s on the top of the aisle in a purple box. Plan B One-Step emergency contraception: $51.99. You can just take the box to the counter. That was easy.

My visit to Walgreens in Portland, Oregon was how getting Plan B is supposed to go.  In June 2013, the Food and Drug Administration approved the brand-name emergency contraceptive to be stocked on pharmacy shelves across the country for women of all ages.  No prescription needed, no asking someone to get it from behind the counter.  No age limits. Just grab it like some aspirin, and be on your way.

But for some women, getting emergency contraception is not so simple….

Audio: Pow-wow drumming

SM: This is the Dancing in the Square pow-wow, an annual Native American gathering put on by the Northwest Portland area Indian Health Board. It’s a celebration that brings together local tribes. But it’s also a chance to raise awareness about important issues facing Indians living in Oregon and connect them to healthcare resources. For many Native women, getting emergency contraception isn’t always as easy as walking into Walgreens.

Jessica Leston: People don’t know the difference between emergency contraception and medical abortion, and there is a lot of non-education around the subject.

SM: That misunderstanding is the first problem, says Jessica Leston. She’s the clinical programs manager at the Northwest Portland area Indian Health Board, the group that helps put on the pow-wow. Plan B and other types of emergency contraception, actually prevent pregnancy from happening if taken within three to five days of unprotected sex. They do that by delaying or disrupting ovulation, which means they’ve helped millions of women avoid accidental pregnancies.

In Native American communities, access to Plan B is crucial, says Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center, based in South Dakota.

Charon Asetoyer: There is an extremely high rate of sexual assaults that occur on reservations in this country. And one in three Native women will be sexually assaulted at least once in her life. And it’s important that women know that these services are available. I’ve always said that emergency contraceptives help to reduce the residual effects of sexual assault, one being an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy from the sexual assault. So, it reduces the trauma, the added trauma that can result from sexual assault.