Florida women play key role in emergency birth-control case

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.

“I just quietly said no. I said, ‘I don’t dispense it.’ And if I was the only one there when someone asked for it, I would call another pharmacist, but I guess it got to be a problem,’’ Katsonis, now living in West Wendover, Nevada, told The Miami Herald. “I wasn’t and I’m not trying to impose my religious beliefs on others. I did it because of the health aspect. I still haven’t seen anything scientific that convinces me that the morning-after pills are not destroying innocent lives.’’

Last year, Katsonis was laid off from his pharmacy position at a drug store. He believes it was because of his stance.

“I see these young girls pregnant and it makes me want to weep,’’ he said. “I just don’t feel that the morning-after pill is the right way to handle things and I wonder how they are going to emotionally respond to that decision 10, 15 years down the road.’’

For the students at the time, the lesson was clear: The NOW activists, who later became organizers in Gainesville’s NWL chapter, realized the strength of well organized campaigns, and more importantly, the need for change in the way birth control was handled.

“Through these women’s experiences, we realized we didn’t want a pharmacist to have the power to say yes or no,’’ said Churchill, a NWL Gainesville chapter organizer and plaintiff. “The event with the pharmacist [in 1991], was pivotal in our getting really involved in this issue.”

Churchill became plaintiff eight.

For more than two decades the NWL Gainesville chapter — along with the national organization and New York chapter — have worked on women’s issues, the last 10 focused on making the morning-after pill available without restrictions on age or how it can be sold. That grassroots fight has included sit-ins (and arrests), sending thousands of petitions to the FDA, testifying, and eventually filing the federal lawsuit.

There have been victories along the way: In 2006, the FDA agreed to eliminate the prescription requirement for women 18 and over. Three years later, a judge ordered the FDA to drop the prescription for girls aged 17 and older.

In 2003, NWL and NOW members launched a “speakout” campaign, encouraging women, from all walks of life to share their own experiences about why the morning-after pills should be available over-the-counter. Later that year, more than a dozen women from Florida and New York testified at an FDA advisory committee meeting.

Much of the power of the movement is built upon personal experiences.

For Lori Tinney, supporting the cause was the bookend on an introspective journey. She arrived on the Gainesville campus as an 18-year-old freshman who did not believe in abortion.

“As I went through college, I spoke to a lot of women and after a while, maybe over a two-year period, I realized that a woman should be able to make their own choices based on their needs. You just can’t walk in other people’s shoes,’’ said Tinney, who used the morning-after pill when she was in her mid 30s. She is now married and mother of a three-year-old daughter. “Women have the right to make the call about a pregnancy and there certainly shouldn’t be any barriers to making that call.’’

Now, working at a nonprofit legal organization, Tinney became active with the Gainesville NWL chapter about a year after graduating in 1995. “I felt like I wasn’t really doing anything to change the world. But I said to myself, you can be mad or you can do something about it.’’

Tinney became plaintiff six.

In 2004, NWL joined the Center for Reproductive Rights as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the FDA to remove the prescription requirement. Tummino v Hamburg was filed Jan. 21, 2005, with the names of nine women (15-year-old Anaya Kelly, of Gainesville, was added last year), including some who had their own experience with the morning-after pill. Plaintiffs include Carol Giardina and Jenny Brown, who both used to live in Gainesville, and Kelly Mangan and Frances Hunt, who both attended UF.

The women believe the suit, in the tradition of the civil-rights movement, forces a legal battle to make social change, in this case, the advancement of women’s freedoms.

“Access to birth control is the unfinished agenda of the 1960s struggle. The ability to make your own decision is a cornerstone of women’s liberation,’’ said Churchill. “We are working to build a lasting movement.”