The long and sweeping movement to broaden access to emergency contraception — which may culminate soon in girls and women of all ages having over-the-counter access — has been led, in part, by a group of Florida grassroots activists — students, mothers, daughters.
The original lawsuit against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration calling for all restrictions to be lifted on the so-called morning-after pill has nine plaintiffs, most of whom have deep Florida roots, their journey starting at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Five of the plaintiffs attended UF; one of those, Candi Churchill, grew up in Cooper City; their attorney, Andrea Costello, who also attended UF, is from North Miami.
The cause — first fought as students, now as seasoned activists — will be heard again Tuesday, as a federal judge decides the next step in a case shaping the national discourse on women’s reproductive rights. The case’s origin traces, in part, back to an infirmary pharmacist at UF in the 1990s who refused to dispense emergency contraceptives based on his religious and moral beliefs.
“We are just women who are willing to stand up for ourselves, other women and girls,’’ said Stephanie Seguin, who grew up in Fort Myers, now an organizer with the National Women’s Liberation Gainesville chapter and a plaintiff. “This is a way for women as a group to have more control over our lives. This is about self determination for women and girls.’’
Seguin became plaintiff number five.
The issue of full access to birth control has simmered for decades, a battle now defined by science, grassroots campus activism, two national feminist organizations, FDA hearings and two presidential administrations accused of political meddling.
In April, U.S. District Judge Edward Korman ordered the FDA to make emergency contraception available over the counter, without a prescription or age restriction — in practice, the pills to be displayed on the same retail shelves as, say, aspirin or cold medicine or condoms. Before the ruling, emergency contraception, used after sexual intercourse to help prevent pregnancy, was stored behind pharmacy counters, available only to women 17 and older, without a prescription.
Unrelated to Korman’s ruling, the FDA last week approved the application of Teva, that company that makes Plan B Step One, to offer the emergency contraception without a prescription for females 15 or older without a prescription, but with proof of age.
And last week, the Justice Department filed a notice of appeal of Korman’s April ruling and asked him to stay his order — scheduled to go into effect Friday — until the appeal is resolved. Korman will hear oral arguments Tuesday morning in the federal courts’ Eastern District in Brooklyn.
In arguing against the stay, Costello said the government has no grounds for the request.
“We believe immediate harm will come to women and girls because they need timely access to emergency contraception,’’ said Costello, senior staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and the attorney for the plaintiffs. “We obviously want this decided quickly because every minute women and girls don’t have access is a minute too late.’’
For more than two decades, feminists from UF have worked to expand access to birth control in the United States. In 1991, the UF Chapter of the National Organization for Women campaigned against a pharmacist at the campus infirmary who was refusing to dispense the emergency contraception, which required a prescription at the time. The pharmacist, Michael Katsonis, eventually resigned.