Pharmacists refuse to fill birth control prescriptions

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – Increasingly, women across the country are finding it more difficult to fill prescriptions for birth control pills and emergency contraceptives. Pharmacists citing religious and moral opposition to the medications are refusing to fill prescriptions. Though a national debate, the issue over pharmacists’ rights is quickly reaching college campuses.

“Contraception is a basic health care need for women, including college women,” said Rachel Vogelstein a Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center.

Refusals have been reported in California, Washington, Georgia, Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Texas as well as several other states. It is not known how wide spread refusals may be on college campuses.

In 2002, a University of Wisconsin student was refused access to her birth control prescription by an off-campus pharmacists. Disciplinary action has since been filled against the pharmacist a ruling from the licensing board is expected shortly.

Pharmacists are controlled by state laws and licensing boards. Bills that would allow pharmacists to refuse filling contraceptives on religious or moral opposition are pending in 11 states, including Wisconsin.

“We are working to amend those bills to protect women’s health,” said Vogelstein.

NWLC recently scored a big success when Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich signed legislation protecting immediate access to contraception.

“Five weeks ago, two women called in prescriptions to their local pharmacy in the South Loop to purchase contraceptives. The law gives them every right to do that. Each woman had a prescription from her doctor. Both women only sought to buy contraceptives. And yet both were denied. Why? Because the pharmacist refused to fill the prescription.

“Unfortunately, this story is not unique to Chicago or to Illinois. Cases like this have been popping up all over the country. I have a sneaking suspicion that in all likelihood, this is part of a concerted effort to deny women access to birth control. Those involved in this effort may be getting away with this in other states, but here in Illinois, we are not going to let that happen,” said Gov. Blagojevich in a press release April 1.

University of Wisconsin recently made headlines again. State representative Daniel LeMahieu proposed legislation in mid-March that would ban the distribution of emergency contraception on campus. His bill is currently circulating looking for a co-sponsor. Wisconsin’s one of the 11 states where there’s pending legislation allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill contraceptive and morning after prescriptions.

“This isn’t solely derived from morality,” said LeMahieu’s Chief of Staff Jeffrey Gothman. “This goes higher than a morality question. This deals with a woman’s health.”

While LeMahieu’s chief of staff admits that the representative views the morning after pill as a form of abortion, he says that for LeMahieu the issue’s not based on his morals, but rather on the unknown future impact the morning after pill may have.

“There is no warning as to the future impact on a woman’s health,” said Gothman. “They’re arbitrarily handing out high dosages of hormones.”

The bill would prohibit students from accessing the morning after pill through the University of Wisconsin’s health system. It would not inhibit access to normal birth control pills. LeMahieu, a pro-life delegate and co-sponsor of the Pharmacy Conscience Clause Bill, which would give pharmacists the right of refusal to fill contraceptive and morning after prescriptions based on moral or religious beliefs

“University health systems are pushing the lets too far by advertising in a simplistic way that the morning after pill will take care of all these problems,” said Gothman.

“There are issues like date rape where access to emergency contraception because extremely important,” said Vogelstein.

The morning-after pill must be administered within 72 hours for effectiveness. Maximum effectiveness occurs in the first 24 hours. Students are often in need of emergency contraception during the weekends or late at night.

“I don’t thin its right for them to tell me what medication can and cannot get,” said GW senor Jamie Panzarella. “It maybe hard for some girls to find another pharmacy or take off from class to drive somewhere.”

Several universities throughout the country have recently included contraception in their student health plans, including the University of Delaware and New York University. An informal survey of 100 major colleges and universities by Voices for Planned Parenthood found 53 percent offered prescription drug coverage but not birth control coverage.

The Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing a second application by Duramed Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Plan B, an emergency contraceptive pill, to sell the medication over the counter. In December of 2003, the FDA’s advisory panel voted overwhelmingly, 24-3, in favor of selling the drug over the counter. FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford, citing that some participants in the study were under the age of 16, then denied the application.

In April of 2003, James Madison University Board of Visitors voted to ban the sale of emergency contraceptive at the health center after receiving a letter from Virginia State Delegate Robert G. Marshall (R-Va.). Marshall, an anti-abortion activist, has been the force behind anti-choice legislation in the state Legislature. The university’s trustees later overturned their initial vote after several months of student and administration protest. Health related decisions are no longer under the authority of the university’s trustees.

“Access to contraception on college campuses is a big issue for us,” said Vogelstein, who works closely with law students around the country.

The National Women’s Law Center has also had success in getting college campuses to ensure access to contraception. About a year ago the National Women’s Law Center started the Pharmacy Refusal Project, which works for legislation to protect women’s health through public education and aiding state and federal advocates.

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