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With Louisiana abortion law in limbo, these groups are giving out Plan B for free

Plan B sold at the pharmacy section in a Walmart in Houma, Louisiana.
Kezia Setyawan
Plan B sold at the pharmacy section in a Walmart in Houma, Louisiana.

When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last month — ending the decades-long constitutional right to abortion and initiating Louisiana’s “trigger ban” on the procedure — Ashton Young started fielding an onslaught of questions.

Questions like: what does this decision mean for the morning-after pill?

Young, a program manager for the Reproductive Justice Action Collective (ReJAC), helps run the group’s Plan B NOLA program, which distributes the pill for free or by donation across the greater New Orleans area. The group manages that system via a helpline: people can call or text (504) 264-3656 and be directed to a neighborhood outpost to pick up Plan B, or if they can’t get there themselves, a volunteer delivery driver may bring it to their home.

Pearl Ricks, Executive Director of the Reproductive Justice Action Collective (REJAC) shows the contents of a package that the collective distributes to anyone seeking information or resources. It includes condoms, lubricant, an informative zine, emergency contraception, and an early pregnancy test. New Orleans, June 8, 2020.
© Claire Bangser
Pearl Ricks, Executive Director of the Reproductive Justice Action Collective (REJAC) shows the contents of a package that the collective distributes to anyone seeking information or resources. It includes condoms, lubricant, an informative zine, emergency contraception, and an early pregnancy test. New Orleans, June 8, 2020.

After news of the court’s decision came out in late June, the call volume for the helpline doubled to about 35 calls a week, Young said. People wanted to know: “Does this still exist?” and “Is your program still legal?”

The answer is yes, for now.

The state’s abortion ban is currently in limbo. If or when it takes effect, it explicitly keeps emergency contraception legal.

Reproductive health advocates are working to make sure people know the option is still here, and are trying to make it easier to get — an effort they see as especially urgent in the post-Roe world. But they worry that emboldened anti-abortion legislators may come for it next, especially because of a longstanding misconception that the pill may cause abortions.

“My personal fear is, now that the Dobbs decision has happened, states are going to go after more things like [emergency contraception],” Young said.

Often referred to as the “morning-after pill,” Plan B is a brand name for levonorgestrel, a single-dose pill that can be taken after unprotected or under-protected sex to prevent pregnancy. It’s most effective the sooner you take it, and is sold over-the-counter at pharmacies.

It is not one of the pills used in a medication abortion. Levonorgestrel is meant to be taken before you know you’re pregnant; it helps prevent the fertilization of a sperm and an egg.

Getting the morning-after pill isn’t always easy. For one, it’s expensive: brand-name Plan B sells for about $50 per pill, while generics like Aftera and Take Action run slightly cheaper. 

And because the pill works best when you take it immediately, there’s also the risk of not being able to get it in time, if you need to wait for shipping, or your local pharmacy is out of stock.

Young, from Plan B NOLA, said emergency contraception is already difficult to access for people lacking resources like money and transportation — “and then you’re approached by the stigma.” Some major pharmacy chains, like Walgreens and CVS, allow their staff to deny people medications based on religious or moral convictions, though employees have to refer customers to someone else.

That’s why the group is here to guide people through the process, Young said. “I think that’s why a lot of people reach out to us the most — because it feels safer.”

In the wake of the Dobbs decision, more people have wanted to stockpile the medication for a rainy day, Young said.

“They just know they’re not going to be able to easily access abortion in our state.”

Plan B NOLA isn’t the only group trying to get the supply out there.

More grassroots networks are springing up to provide the morning-after pill for free, from front porches and college campuses to Instagram pages and other social media platforms.

Plan B NOLA has served Orleans Parish and some parts of Jefferson Parish for the past five years. But a new group, Gulf South Plan B, aims to provide the pill for people outside of metro New Orleans.

The volunteer organizers of the group, who wished to remain anonymous, started laying the groundwork for the initiative after Hurricane Ida last year, when basic services were limited across southeast Louisiana. While delivering more traditional relief supplies like water and roofing nails to coastal parishes, they also gave out Plan B.

“You might need emergency contraception alongside the tarp that you need for your roof,” one volunteer said.

When an early draft of the Dobbs decision was leaked in May, Gulf South Plan B took it as a signal to speed up their operations. They now have an online order form that asks for basic contact information and a mailing address. Each package includes two doses of the morning-after pill and four pregnancy tests.

Over the last two months, the volunteers estimated they had sent out about 200 doses of the pill to people in 16 parishes and in Texas and Mississippi, an effort they’ve paid for through personal funds and limited crowdsourcing.

While their form says it may take up to two weeks to fill a request — well beyond the timeframe when the pill will be effective — the volunteers said their typical turnaround time has been under 72 hours. According to their Instagram page, the resource is not meant to be an emergency tool, but is intended as a way to make the medication available when people need it.

They hope to expand their reach by partnering with other groups across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, and plan to distribute the pill on the ground if a major hurricane hits the region this season.

Other volunteer groups are spreading knowledge about free access to the pill through word of mouth.

Dan Bingler is the founder and operations coordinator for the Greater New Orleans Caring Collective, a mutual aid group and nonprofit that began early in the pandemic. In 2020, when the group operated a temporary food pantry, Bingler made sure to have a stash of Plan B around for those in need of it.

Now, the group is setting up a longer-term free store at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, where people can come “shop” for basic items, including clothes, kitchen supplies and toiletries. Bingler keeps a stockpile of the morning-after pill there, which is available for anyone passing through to take.

“I have volunteers from high schoolers to teachers in their 40s and 50s who are like, ‘Oh, that’s a good thing to know that that’s there,’” he said.

But looking to the future, advocates are worried they won’t be able to provide Plan B for long.

“We’re not really sure what’s going to happen going forward,” said one volunteer with Gulf South Plan B. “But in the meantime, I think that we should use all of the tools that are at our disposal to help ensure people be able to make safe, autonomous choices for themselves.”

Many expressed concern that conservative state lawmakers — as well as the U.S. Supreme Court — could soon target emergency contraception.

Lakeesha Harris, co-executive director of Lift Louisiana, a reproductive rights policy organization, pointed to Justice Clarence Thomas’ opinion in the Dobbs case, in which he suggested the court revisit the landmark cases protecting the right to contraception: Griswold vs. Connecticut and Eisenstadt v. Baird.

“He made it very clear that that’s on the table,” Harris said. The U.S. House recently passedan act aimed at enshrining the right to contraception into federal law, though the measure stalled in the Senate on Wednesday.

Harris’ group lobbied for a bill at the statehouse this spring that would require healthcare providers give rape victims — who won’t be allowed to get abortions if and when Louisiana’s abortion ban takes effect again — the option of getting emergency contraception, contingent on a negative pregnancy test.

The bill passed, and some local anti-abortion lobbyists expressed support for the measure, too. That includes Louisiana Right to Life, the most prominent anti-abortion rights group in the state, though when asked about their stance on emergency contraception in general, a spokesperson said they oppose them “when they act as an abortifacient.”

While elected officials are focused on passing and enforcing abortion restrictions post-Roe instead of introducing bans on contraception, some prominent anti-abortion groups have cast Plan B as an abortion-inducing drug for years.

That’s partly because of misleading, federally-required language on Plan B packaging, which suggests that the pill can prevent implantation, or the process of a fertilized egg attaching to the uterus. According to Kaiser Health News, numerous studies have shown the pill does not have this effect — it delays ovulation, preventing an egg from encountering sperm in the first place. NPR reported that reproductive health experts are calling on the Food and Drug Administration to update the label.

That outdated labeling has spurred confusion in states with trigger laws that define life as beginning at fertilization. Days after the Dobbs decision came down, a major health system in Missouri — a state that now bans nearly all abortions — stopped providing emergency contraception in an attempt to remain within the law. Shortly after, the system pivoted and began providing it again.

Harris has long seen misconceptions about emergency contraception at play – and sees getting accurate information to the public as a priority.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings about Plan B, like it is the pathway of abortion,” she said. “It is not an abortion drug.”

Young, from Plan B NOLA, also acknowledged fear about the future. In the short term, they’re worried that the morning-after pill may get harder to stock amid shortages; in the long-term, they’re concerned about laws banning the pill.

For now, they’re focused on giving people up-to-date guidance about their reproductive health options — and distributing Plan B while they still can.

“We are trying so hard to stay present with what we can do right now,” they said.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated.

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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