After a decade-long battle led by the Center for Reproductive Rights, in June this year the US Food and Drug Administration finally approved the emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step for over-the-counter sale. Like clockwork, Oklahoma, a state whose legislature has one of the worst reproductive rights records in the country, moved immediately to curtail access to the pill. Oklahoma House Bill 2226 limits the places where Plan B One-Step will be available, thus reducing access for all women and requiring all women to show ID to buy it. It specifically requires women under 17 to have a prescription and show the pharmacist an ID, even though the FDA says it is safe for use without prescription.
“Here we have an agency responsible for our nation’s food supply telling us this is safe. Why would any legislator want to take that away from us?” says Jo Ann Mangili, one of two plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by the Center on August 8 seeking to overturn the law.
Mangili first heard about Oklahoma’s latest assault on women’s rights through a friend at church. As a nurse, she was livid that the legislature would put the health of women at risk by denying access to a safe, humane, and proven reproductive health technology. As a mother of a teenage girl, she was outraged. “God knows I don’t ever expect my daughter to need this, but she might. And there have got to be kids out there that don’t feel they can talk to their parents,” she says. “I’d like to say there’s no one out there without a supportive adult to go to, but we all know that there are.”
Martha Skeeters, president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice (OCRJ), the other plaintiff represented by the Center in our suit to overturn HB2226, has for years been growing increasingly frustrated with the state’s assault on women’s health. After the state passed eight laws in 2010 unconstitutionally restricting reproductive rights, she’d had enough. “No one was speaking up for women,” she says. “Finally, I just couldn’t stand it any longer, and with others began to organize.” Skeeters co-founded OCRJ which has worked with the Center on numerous campaigns to protect the rights of women amid the onslaught of attacks on women’s rights that has spread across the country in recent years. “We have been fighting an uphill battle against the legislature’s assault on reproductive rights. Oklahoma was at the forefront of what has become a national assault, and it has not let up,” she says.
For Skeeters, Oklahoma’s Plan B One Step restriction just adds to the list of things that makes life difficult for the women of Oklahoma. The state has high rates of domestic abuse and teen pregnancy, low rates of health insurance coverage, and puts women in prison at a rate twice the national average. Denying over the counter access to Plan B One-Step to a uniquely vulnerable segment of the population—teen girls facing the prospect of unwanted pregnancy—is yet another angle of attack on the health and rights of Oklahoma’s women. “Having control over one’s own reproductive capacity is a human right,” Skeeters says.
Skeeters feels confident that HB 2226 will be permanently struck down in court. The law unconstitutionally discriminates against women by targeting a form of contraception used only by women. Furthermore, it clearly violates a provision in the state’s constitution known as the “single-subject rule,” which protects against the abuse of power by limiting legislation to one topic at a time. “The Oklahoma constitution prohibits any bill from having more than one subject, and this one clearly has two,” Skeeters says. Since HB 2226 primarily deals with health insurance forms, but had the unrelated provision restricting access to Plan B One-Step tacked on at the last minute, it is patent violation of the state law.
In spite of the single-subject rule, the Oklahoma legislature has shown itself perfectly willing to cast aside its constitution in order to chip away at the health and rights of women. Five of its laws in as many years have been struck down as violations of the single-subject rule. After the state’s Supreme Court overturned a law that forced a woman seeking an abortion to hear a description of an ultrasound against her will, the court wrote: “We are growing weary of admonishing the Legislature for so flagrantly violating the terms of the Oklahoma Constitution. It is a waste of time for the Legislature and the Court, and a waste of the taxpayer’s money.”
Nonetheless, the state legislature has displayed an insatiable appetite for unconstitutional, unethical, inhumane assaults of the human rights of women and girls, and there is every reason to expect similar legislation will be proposed in the future. The Center’s fight to defend the rights of women in Oklahoma continues, in partnership with the OCRJ and women like Jo Ann Mangili and her daughter.
“We depend on the Center for Reproductive Rights as our last line of defense against these anti-woman legislators and their oppressive laws,” Skeeters says. “The assault on reproductive rights emanating from state legislatures (around the country) is having the practical effect of making abortion less accessible. Where would we be without the Center for Reproductive Rights and the fight it wages alongside us to protect our constitutional rights?”