Revolting Pharmacists

Fixated as we all are on the war in Iraq, our nervous economy and soaring fuel prices, it is no wonder we didn't see the assault brewing on a distant flank.

Now we can't miss the signs of battle as conservatives move to criminalize abortion and restrict access to contraceptives. A colleague once told me that President George W. Bush would be stupid to pursue an anti-choice agenda when most of the country supports abortion rights. Since then, Bush appointed two people hostile to abortion rights to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The move emboldened South Dakota to institute the most-restrictive abortion law since Roe v. Wade stopped states from doing just that. A cousin to the South Dakota law is moving through the Mississippi legislature. Wars are best fought on many levels, employing many strategies.

And so it is that the Washington State Pharmacy Board finds itself holding public hearings statewide to decide whether pharmacists deserve a "conscience clause" allowing them to withhold medications in conflict with their convictions. Seventeen other states are considering "conscience clauses." Pharmacy boards in Wyoming, Nevada, North Carolina and Massachusetts did the right thing and told pharmacists they deserved no such rights.

I agree. Call me a cynic, but I'm presuming pharmacists aren't conflicted over dispensing, say, Viagra. This issue looks, smells and quacks like a politically motivated debate over emergency contraception, also known as Plan B. Peel back a few more layers of the onion and catch a whiff of the lingering fumes from RU486, the controversial pill designed to end unwanted pregnancies.

It ought not be confused with Plan B, which prevents fertilization of an egg and prevents conception. But enough of the science lesson. This war is political and pharmacists have been pulled in much as scientists were during the stem-cell debates. They ought to sit this one out. The average woman spends 23 years using contraceptives to avoid pregnancies. That's not a market share pharmacists should alienate.

With two-thirds of Americans supporting a woman's right to choose, focusing on emergency contraceptives is one way the anti-abortion movement has morphed in order to survive and fight another day. "The abortion issue is a cover for a fundamentalist anti-contraception and anti-sex movement," argues Cristina Page, author of the aptly named tome, How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America.

Page is right. Opposition to abortion has broadened into an anti-contraception movement. Imagine if pharmacists were free to refuse to fill prescriptions. My fear would be standing before the strict pharmacist and enduring a lecture on the evils of birth control. Without contraception and legal abortion, sex would be fast-tracked back to the days of being for procreation only.

Pharmacists cannot be allowed to wiggle out of their professional responsibilities. My hunch is most probably don't want to. I'm thinking there are more conscientious objector bills floating around state Houses than pharmacists who want to object. This is less about morals and more about politics.

The timing of all this is no coincidence. Those with an anti-abortion agenda are emboldened by conservative appointments to key posts with the Federal Drug Administration and the federal Health and Human Services Department. They are encouraged by America's preoccupation with a protracted war.

And they are ignorant of this central fact: We're going to need contraceptives and other methods to prevent unwanted pregnancies. A UNICEF study put America's teen pregnancy rate -- slowly falling -- right between Thailand's and Rwanda's. Of the teen births happening in wealthy countries, two-thirds occur here.

A startling fact stands out in Cristina Page's book on the pro-choice movement: Seven in 10 American women are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant. These women are at risk of becoming pregnant should they or their partners fail to use a contraceptive or if the contraceptive failed to work.

Some of these women will end up at their neighborhood pharmacy. They ought to be assisted by pharmacists carrying out their professional duties and not the political agenda of the anti-abortion movement.

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