In the 30 years since Roe v. Wade, groups on both sides of the abortion issue have simultaneously escalated and simplified their rhetoric to the point of screeching bumper-sticker slogans. Amid the "Out of My Womb!" and "Abortion Kills Babies!" chants, the shared goal of actually reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies—the leading cause of abortions, after all—is drowned out.
Until this upcoming legislative session, that is. Stacked with a solidly pro-choice state legislature for the first time in more than a decade, NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon—in partnership with Planned Parenthood—is putting aside their usual priorities in order to push for more access to contraception in all parts of the state.
"We really believe that the vote on Measure 43 [parental notification for minors, which failed by a nine-point margin] is affirmation that Oregonians support choice and don't support restrictions on reasonable women's health issues," says NARAL Pro-Choice Oregon's executive director, Michele Stranger Hunter. With choice no longer under attack, she adds, "that allows us to be more proactive."
NARAL is still putting together its legislative agenda, so Stranger Hunter couldn't talk about the specifics of the group's plan. But in a general sense, she says, "We are going to do everything we can to get contraceptive products and services into the hands of every Oregon woman."
Much of that focus will likely be on rural areas. "The reality [of access to contraception] in Multnomah County or Washington County is not the reality in Douglas County or Jackson County," Stranger Hunter says. But combating that, she says, will take more than a legislative approach.
Both NARAL and Planned Parenthood have a long history of pushing pro-contraceptive bills through the Oregon legislature, but in years past, the efforts have been an exercise in futility, thanks to GOP-roadblocks.
In the 2005 session, two bills passed through the Oregon Senate that would have expanded contraception services. SB756 would have required insurance companies to offer contraceptive services as part of their drug plans—assuming they offered plans for other prescriptions. SB849 would have given pharmacies the authority to prescribe and dispense emergency contraception. Even though both bills had overwhelming and bipartisan support in the senate, they died in the House of Representatives before they could even get a hearing, blocked by now-outgoing Speaker of the House Karen Minnis, an ally of anti-choice groups in Oregon.
With Minnis out of her leadership position, the path should be open for moderate house Republicans to sign on to the bill. But depending on how far the plans go, conservative groups may line up against the seemingly moderate issue.
One of NARAL's general plans is to expand the availability of emergency contraception. The Food and Drug Administration approved the so-called Plan B pill for over-the-counter use—women under 18 still need a prescription—but according to a NARAL study, 28 percent of the pharmacies in the state don't carry it even on a prescription basis. Of those, 30 percent said they don't stock it because of moral objections.
Moreover, the drug isn't yet available without a prescription at any Oregon pharmacy.
Stranger Hunter expects that the group's efforts to ensure availability—through more than just legislative action—will meet with greater resistance than any other part of its contraception plans. And that, she says, is largely a product of intentional misinformation, with birth control opponents conflating Plan B with the more controversial RU-486 pill.
In fact, that pushback seems inevitable. Any plan to mandate that pharmacies carry the drug will likely meet harsh resistance from Oregon Right to Life (ORTL). Although the group's executive director, Gayle Atteberry, said ORTL doesn't take an official stand on birth control ("We get into the business right after conception," she says), she wasted no time lambasting emergency contraception.
"It absolutely infuriates me as a human being, simply because they want young girls to be able to get this without any supervision whatsoever, and I think that's an atrocity toward our young girls," Atteberry says. "All it is is an overdose, so to speak, of birth control pills. You should have a doctor's oversight because of medical needs, so why they're insisting that young girls be able to get this without any doctor's oversight is proof to me that they are not really concerned with the health of these young girls."
"Pharmacists are not doctors," she added. "And pharmacists do not have the personal relationship with a girl that a doctor has."
Two things should be noted: The FDA still requires prescriptions for girls 17 and under, and the agency has determined that, "when used as directed, Plan B effectively and safely prevents pregnancy."
Paradoxically, the shift to over-the-counter access could, in some places, be more of a roadblock to people seeking Plan B. Under the prescription plan, pharmacists who refused to carry the drug were required to transfer the prescription to another pharmacist within a three-mile radius. There is no such provision for the over-the-counter version—meaning that anyone seeking Plan B from a moral objector could now be out of luck. Stranger Hunter expects that this will require a larger public education program directed at pharmacists in rural areas to convince them to carry the pill.
The bottom line, though, is that with the Republican legislative majority out of the picture and licking its wounds, NARAL will have an easier time with its agenda than in years past. That's something that even Right to Life's Atteberry admits.
"There isn't anyone to really represent the other side," she says. "One main reason [NARAL and Planned Parenthood's plans] have been turned down is that Republicans, as a whole, are against mandating insurance companies."
"The [Democratic] leadership now is not prone to wanting to hear our issues," she added.
Additional reporting by Amy Jenniges.