Bill Would Force Pharmacists to Offer Contraception

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT

( - Congressional Democrats and other advocates of emergency contraception on Wednesday introduced a bill that would require pharmacies to offer emergency birth control, even if the pharmacists object to doing so on moral grounds.

Emergency contraception, also referred to as the "morning after pill" or "Plan B," is available without a prescription to women 18 and older. The two-pill package prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's uterus, and pro-life advocates consider that a form of abortion.

Some pro-life pharmacists have come under fire for refusing to offer the pills because of their personal moral objections. The Access to Birth Control Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and in the Senate by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), would require pharmacies that carry contraceptives to offer Plan B.

Pharmacists have "an obligation to serve women, provide them with access to medication," Maloney said at a news conference in Washington, D.C. "It is about health care. It's about the basic right to birth control."

The proposal would require pharmacies to "ensure that the contraceptive is provided to the customer without delay." If the pills are out of stock, pharmacies would be required to order them for the customer, or refer them to another pharmacy that stocks Plan B.

The bill says pharmacy employees may not "intimidate, threaten, or harass customers in the delivery of services relating to a request for contraception" or "interfere with or obstruct the delivery of services relating to a request for contraception."

Penalties would include a $5,000 fine for each day a violation occurs. The legislation would also allow women denied Plan B to sue pharmacies for damages in civil court.

The bill's introduction came the day before the 42nd anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which established a married couple's right to use contraceptives.

Maloney was joined by the bill's House co-sponsor, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), and the leaders of the nation's most prominent women's rights and abortion advocacy groups. The conference also included Carrie Baker, a 42-year-old Georgia mother who has become the face of NARAL Pro-Choice America's latest campaign in support of the bill.

Baker sought emergency contraception as a "back-up plan" to normal birth control medication at a Kroger grocery store in her hometown of Rome, Ga. According to Baker, the pharmacists refused to give her Plan B because of their religious objections to the medication.

"Pharmacists around this country have denied women access to birth control," Maloney said, adding that similar cases have come up in at least 19 states. "They are being denied their constitutional right."

Baker ended up getting the emergency contraception from a local CVS Pharmacy but told Cybercast News Service the fact that the pills were easily available elsewhere does not excuse Kroger's actions because "the more rural a place is, the less options there are."

"What happens when Kroger won't carry it, CVS is out of stock and all the local pharmacies won't carry it and so you end up going from place to place to place?" Baker asked. "There's no reason why these places shouldn't have it and if one person objects to it morally, fine. Just have somebody else on staff that will give it out."

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called the bill a "vitally important piece of legislation" that addresses the "disturbing trend" of pharmacists refusing to give women the morning-after pill.

"It is 2007. Any woman should be able to walk into any pharmacy, anywhere in the country, and get birth control, including emergency contraception, without discrimination or delay," Richards said. "Congress should pass the Access to Birth Control Act to ensure that any woman who needs birth control is able to get it."

Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International (PFLI), called the bill "a shame" and warned that pharmacists would leave the business if Congress legislated their professional behavior. "There will be no more pharmacists. We are smart and we can get other jobs. The biggest victims are the patients who will be losing pharmacy services," she said.

"This is a person who doesn't know anything about the practice of pharmacy," Brauer said of the bill's author. "It is a shame to have politicians regulating people with a complete lack of understanding."

Brauer said physicians who refuse to carry or provide contraception are doing so out of concern for the health of female patients. "There are countless deaths of women from the birth control pill because it causes blood clots," she said.

Pharmacists also have a right to act on behalf of their customers' health, Brauer said, and opposition to products like emergency contraception stems from professional and moral concerns.

Brauer said pharmacists have in the past refused to offer dangerous drugs like quinine sulfate, which is used to treat malaria and nocturnal leg cramps and was available over the counter until the Food and Drug Administration moved it behind the counter in 1994 amid safety concerns.

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