A Crime of Compassion

Five feminists committed a crime in broad daylight Sunday afternoon before some 100 cheering accomplices at Rockefeller Plaza, and they blamed the Food and Drug Administration for making them do it. The offense? Giving a friend the emergency contraceptive known as the "morning-after pill," which still is available only by prescription. It remains off-limits without a doctor's note despite 20 years of scientific data showing it to be "safer than aspirin," according to activists.

"Women should not have to rely on luck to control their reproductive lives," declared Erin Mahoney, one of the chief conspirators of the post-Valentine's Day action and co-chair of the NOW-NYS (National Organization for Women) Reproductive Rights Task Force. Mahoney then raised a pill in her fist, demanded that the drug be available over-the-counter, and handed it (illegally) to the next speaker.

"We're just making public what women already do," said Alexandra Leader, another organizer and chair of the feminist group Redstockings Allies and Veterans, in an interview prior to the action. Mahoney, Leader, and a dozen others spoke out to the crowd of women and men about doctors refusing to prescribe it, pharmacists refusing to carry the drug, and the ordeal of getting a quick appointment at Planned Parenthood just to obtain a prescription. Stephanie Morin, a law student and member of the task force, recalled an ex-boyfriend's "annoying habit" of "losing the condom" during sex and being deemed irresponsible when appealing to the campus infirmary. Beyond simply demoralizing women, such obstacles mitigate the effectiveness of the drug, which works best in preventing an egg's fertilization and implantation within 24 hours of intercourse.

More than 400 other women around the country joined the conspiracy, said organizers, signing a pledge to "give a friend the morning-after pill on February 15 -- or any day they need it," and Dr. Linda W. Prine was on hand at the New York rally to aid and abet. She wrote out prescriptions -- with twelve refills -- to anyone who asked, including this reporter. "I also provide abortions," said the local family practitioner, "so I know what women go through when they have an unplanned pregnancy. I'm here because I want to prevent that in any way I can."

The "MAP Conspiracy" pledge was delivered last week to FDA commissioner Mark McClellan, who had been due to grant or deny over-the-counter status to "Plan B," manufactured by Barr Laboratories, by February 20 but announced on Friday that he was delaying the decision for 90 days. The pill, not to be confused with the home-abortion drug RU-486, is essentially a megadose of the same hormones contained in ordinary birth-control pills, but is much safer, with nausea as the only common side effect. It's stocked on drugstore shelves in 38 countries, including Canada.

On December 16, 2003, two separate FDA advisory committees recommended that Plan B make the leap to being over-the-counter; they are supported by the editorial pages of some 60 newspapers, 76 members of congress, and more than 70 feminist groups and health organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "How often do you get organized medicine saying 'You shouldn't have to come to us to get this drug,'" said Richard Gottfried, chair of the New York State Assembly Health Committee, at today's rally.

The committee has sponsored a bill that would make MAP over-the-counter in New York, but it has yet to survive the state Senate. Also supporting the action was Democratic congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who relayed through a spokesperson: "It seems that the FDA has thrown the cold, hard, scientific facts out the window to bow to political pressure. They've injected ideology into a scientific matter, and it's going to hurt women's health in the long run."

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