‘Morning-After Pill Brigade’ Protests for Better Emergency Contraception Access

A “roving band of feminists” took to the streets, or rather the aisles, in New York City Saturday to protest pharmacies that restrict over-the-counter access to Plan B.

NWL organizer Lydia Devine holds Plan B One-Step, which is locked in a large plastic case. Standing next to her is organizer Allison Guttu. Laurie Wen

A “roving band of feminists” organized by the National Women’s Liberation (NWL) took to the streets, or rather the aisles, in New York City Saturday to protest pharmacies that restrict over-the-counter access to Plan B One-Step.

NWL’s “Morning-After Pill Brigade” targeted five pharmacies near Union Square with an attention-getting, street-theater-style action that pointed out problems with Plan B accessibility to shoppers and management.

During the action, group leaders would loudly announce to the store that the brigade was looking for the morning-after pill. Group members then would disperse, asking where the emergency contraception was and handing shoppers a letter to the pharmacy’s CEO.

“The morning-after pill is locked in a box? You have to carry the box around the store?” protesters would say to each other. “Sure, so the whole store knows you had sex last night. That’s like wearing a dunce cap!”

Indeed, many stores either keep Plan B behind the pharmacy counter, don’t stock more than two pills at a time, or keep the pill in a locked box that has to be opened by a store employee at the counter. Furthermore, employees are often confused about who has permission to open the box. NWL’s letter to pharmacy CEOs said that these store policies embarrass and shame women and restrict access.

NWL’s action alert for the protest showed a picture of locked-up Plan B pills, which cost about $50 each, sitting next to even more expensive digital ovulation kits that were not locked up. “You imply that women may steal [Plan B],” the letter to CEOs said.

At the New York action on Saturday, organizers told Rewire that Plan B was sold differently at pharmacies blocks away from each other.

One CVS had a paradoxical sign in the feminine care aisle directing shoppers to look for Plan B in the feminine care aisle; a manger threatened to call the police when organizers demanded more information. A Rite Aid had the pill in a locked box.

Two Duane Reades and a Walgreens, meanwhile, had newer plastic packaging that didn’t require unlocking a box, which organizers said they hadn’t seen before and were encouraged by. NWL organizer Erin Mahoney had previously argued with the managers of one pharmacy that had the newer packaging this time around.

“We will continue to target pharmacies whenever and wherever we see obstructions to women’s access,” NWL coordinator Annie Tummino told Rewire in an email.

Rewire reported in April on how NWL’s activism helped lead to a victory for women on emergency contraception. Tummino was one of the plaintiffs in Tummino v. Hamburg, which resulted in a ruling that emergency contraception must be available over-the-counter without a prescription to women, girls, and their partners of all ages.

But NWL organizers aren’t done fighting. A Food and Drug Administration ruling that only one brand of emergency contraception, Plan B, could be sold over-the-counter means that less expensive generic pills are still restricted to behind the counter.

“We want to bring up that [lack of pharmacy access] isn’t the only obstacle, that price really gets in the way of women being able to get the morning-after pill,” said NWL organizer Brooke Eliazar-Macke.