Morning-After Pill "Freebies" Highlight Abortion Divide

Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff
November 1, 2022

A few weeks after the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, I accidentally opened a bright-pink mailer addressed to my daughter. She was driving back to college in Northern California from our home in Los Angeles when I texted her: Call me as soon as you can. Seconds later, my phone rang. “Is everything okay?” she asked. Poor cellular connection made her voice echo like she was standing at the bottom of a well. In the background, a tinny Taylor Swift sang about cardigans.

“Sweetheart.” My throat was tight with anxiety. “Are you pregnant?”

“No, I’m not pregnant, Mom!” She sounded shocked.

“Then why was there a box of morning-after pills addressed to you in our mailbox?”

The car radio went silent. “Oh, that,” she said.

My daughter quickly explained that the university gynecologist had recommended she enroll in a birth control pill mail-order service, which she had redirected to our home over the summer. Each month, the distribution company also sends product samples like Plan B or Next Choice, the over-the-counter medications that can be taken to prevent a pregnancy.

As we talked, I walked into my daughter’s room. She’d left the bed unmade and sand on the floor crunched under my bare feet. The top of her white wood dresser was covered by childhood debris – friendship bracelets, lip balms, and a tiny plastic Belle that we got at Disneyland when she was five – as well as two more unopened boxes. I picked up one. “Reduced chance of pregnancy after unprotected sex. Not for regular birth control,” the label read. “Will not harm an existing pregnancy.”

“Have you taken it?” I asked.

“The morning-after pill? No,” she said. “I’m being careful, I promise.”

I wasn’t so careful, when I was in college. I never became pregnant, but I had some scares. That was in the 90s, when birth control pills were only available after visiting a doctor. But over the past three decades, as access to contraceptives increased, abortion rates decreased dramatically. Now, we’re going backwards: Last year, state legislatures passed more than 100 abortion restrictions.

Then came the June Supreme Court decision. The proverbial rug, pulled from under our feet so slowly that most of us didn’t even realize it had moved, was completely yanked away. Triggered abortion bans impacted 40 million people — more than 40% of American women of reproductive age. Conservative legislators in many states also sought to ban “medicated abortion,” which must be prescribed by a doctor. These drugs are often – and sometimes deliberately, by abortion opponents – confused with morning after pills, which many women can buy at a pharmacy without a prescription.

After the Supreme Court decision, people were concerned that morning-after pills would also be banned: Amazon, Rite-Aid, and Walmart capped purchases in order to keep pace with a 40% spike in demand. President Biden signed an executive order directing the Department of Health and Human Services to protect access to them, along with other contraceptives.

These are the “freebies” that my daughter continued to receive in the mail.

Next week, voters in California are expected to secure the right to an abortion in our state constitution but the procedure may soon become more difficult to obtain: After S.B. 8 – better known as the Heartbeat Act – went into effect last year in Texas, Planned Parenthood clinics in neighboring states treated 800% more patients. Governor Newsom signed an executive order that will protect women who travel to California from other states to obtain the procedure and demand for services is expected to increase dramatically.

But my daughter and I didn’t know any of this as she barreled up Highway 5 — we only knew that we could no longer take our reproductive rights for granted. Finally, she switched the radio back on and we talked about other things. Then, like mothers everywhere, I ended the call with, “I love you, honey. Be safe.” I hung up thinking about how different I might feel, saying those words, if my daughter lived in another state.

We’ve talked about it: She wants to be a mother one day – but not now, and only by choice. For so many others, that choice is no longer theirs to make.

portrait of the author, Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff

Rachel Lincoln Sarnoff is pursuing an MFA at Pacific University and is also a climate and conservation expert whose experience informs her writing: She is fascinated by how the past shadows the present and aims to help readers imagine a different future – less dystopia, more hope. She is also director of marketing and communication for Northwest Review.