Emergency Contraceptive Ruling Is a Huge Victory for All Women, Particularly Minorities

Women’s health advocates received welcome news earlier this month when a federal judge ruled that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must make the most popular forms of emergency contraception (also known as the morning-after pill) available for all women over-the-counter. That means that any person will now be able to buy emergency contraception for themselves when they need it and without a prescription or proof of age. As the executive director of National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, one of the plaintiffs in the case, I am pleased to say this commonsense ruling is a big win for women, particularly Latinas and immigrant women.
Medical professionals and women’s advocates first recommended that EC go over-the-counter in 2003, and what followed was a decade of politically-motivated delays and blocks that kept EC behind the counter and out of reach for many women. Until now, people under 17 who needed EC had to get a prescription first, and those 17 and older had to go to the pharmacy counter during business hours and show government-issued photo ID. Because emergency contraception is most effective when taken up to three days after contraceptive failure or unprotected sex, delays caused by the need to get a prescription or find an open pharmacy have kept many women from timely access to pregnancy prevention. With this court’s ruling, emergency contraception will finally be where it belongs, on store shelves between the condoms and the pregnancy tests.
Emergency contraception is safe and effective for women of all ages, and the age restriction will no longer prevent young women from making their own timely decisions about preventing pregnancy. What is less talked about is the way that lifting the age restriction benefits immigrant women and women of color of all ages.
Immigrant women, particularly undocumented women, are among those least likely to possess a government-issued photo ID. Up until now, this has meant that many immigrant women, whether age 17 or 37, have been blocked from getting EC altogether because they couldn’t show ID. I’ve personally heard from women who have had to buy pills for their friends and relatives who were undocumented and unable to get it.
Even as this one barrier to reproductive health falls, immigrant women face many more, particularly the 5 million aspiring citizens who are expressly excluded from accessing affordable health insurance due to restrictive laws. While talking with women in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, I heard firsthand how difficult it is for many immigrant women to access reproductive care. One desperate woman crossed into Mexico to see a doctor for a reproductive health condition and literally swam back across the Rio Grande to return home to her family and her life in the United States—because that was easier than getting health care here. The EC ruling isn’t a cure-all for these women, who still face far too many barriers, but it does mean they will have more access to a safe and effective method of preventing unintended pregnancy.
Lack of government-issued photo ID has also presented a barrier to getting EC for women of color regardless of immigration status, as well as for other marginalized groups. Recent attacks on voting rights in the form of photo ID requirements have raised awareness that people of color, disabled people, and transgender people are disproportionately harmed by ID requirements (whether for voting or getting a medication) because they are less likely to have current, accurate identification.
Thankfully, the days of being denied EC because you can’t show ID will soon be behind us. Experts agree that emergency contraception is safe and simple enough for anyone to use. Studies show that both teens and adults understand emergency contraception is a backup to regular contraception and doesn’t protect against sexually transmitted infections. It’s a safe and effective method of preventing pregnancy that major medical groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, support.
This ruling is a win for all women. I now join many other reproductive justice advocates, health groups, and providers in urging the FDA to act quickly to comply with the ruling, and pharmacies and stores nationwide to stock this important backup birth control method. Together, we can get one small but important step closer to achieving health, dignity, and justice for every woman, regardless of her race, age, income, or immigration status.

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