Pharmacist Refusal Clauses: There’s No Conscience In Sending Women Elsewhere

By Erin Matson, NOW Action Vice President

Let’s examine two discordant facts:

FACT: At any given time, 70 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant. Of that group, 98 percent, or virtually all, have used a form of contraceptive. This widespread need and use of contraceptives indicates they are one of the most popular types of preventive care for women in this country.

FACT: A smattering of state laws, state pharmacy board rules and corporate policies exist for the sole purpose of granting pharmacists permission to deny women access to their birth control prescriptions.

As I type, the Washington State Board of Pharmacy is considering whether to repeal a 2007 rule that prevented pharmacies from refusing to dispense medication. As reported in RH Reality Check, “two of the three women on the board support keeping the rule as-is (ie, ensuring that pharmacies cannot refuse to dispense medication) and three of the four men support changing it to allow pharmacies to refer women elsewhere.”

I call dangerous ideas like these “wild goose chase” policies, and having done quite a bit of activism on pharmacist refusal clauses through my local NOW chapter before becoming a national officer, I’ve seen how this argument sometimes gets a gloss-over and is considered a “reasonable accomodation” or “compromise,” which it very much is not.

So, without even getting into the travesty of a pharmacist being allowed to subvert the doctor-patient relationship, violate the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm,” and spout lies that birth control, including emergency contraception, causes abortion (scientifically impossible, folks), here are my top five reasons why policy that might force women to travel from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of a pharmacist who’ll fill her pills is dangerous, discriminatory and anything but reasonable:

  1. Think beyond the city. Women in rural areas may need to travel 30 miles or more to reach other pharmacies — it’s not uncommon.
  2. Think beyond ableism. Women with disabilities may not be able to access other pharmacies.
  3. Think beyond the wealthy. Women struggling to make ends meet may not have the means to travel, whether they don’t have access to a car, resources for additional transportation or flexibility to take time off work to travel to other pharmacies.
  4. Think beyond dreams of something beyond a profit-driven private insurance industry. Women with certain medical plans may be able to fill prescriptions at only a fixed number of pharmacies.
  5. Think beyond unlimited time. Women with time-sensitive birth control prescriptions may not have the time to travel to other pharmacies, whether we’re talking about an emergency contraception prescription or regular monthly pills.

In 2006 the NOW National Conference passed a resolution in support of in-store access to birth control.

It’s unbelievable to me that in 2010 basic medical care for women remains under attack, and we’ve got to fight this battle along with forcing insurers to cover our prescriptions (and making sure HHS reverses its misguided decision to omit contraceptives from its preventive care guidelines).

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