Death of a Conscience Clause
In early 2005, Texas State Representative Frank "The Fetus" Corte was so eager to deny women in Texas access to emergency contraception that he pre-filed his House Bill 16 before the legislative session had even convened. Quite typically for a "moral refusal" bill - and like pharmacists who perhaps skipped class for Bible study while their professors were explaining the pharmacology of birth control pills - Corte's HB 16 attempted to conflate emergency contraception and abortion.
A BILL TO BE ENTITLED AN ACT
In a state like Texas, where Corte and his Senate counterpart Tommy Williams had steamrollered a draconian antiabortion bill through the legislature only two years before, passage of HB 16 should have been assured. But Corte ran into an unexpected obstacle as his bill was being considered by the State Affairs Committee of the Texas House.
To Frank Corte's consternation, someone stood up in the committee hearing room and read from the "Woman's Right to Know Act" that Corte himself had authored only two years before: "An abortion may be performed only by a physician licensed to practice medicine in this state." That one sentence, introduced into law by Corte himself, spelled the death of his "conscience clause" bill.
Of course, the peculiar religiously-based notion that EC constitutes an abortion is the sole grounds upon which some pharmacists refuse to dispense it. Even members of the committee who were as opposed to reproductive choice as Corte is were quick to realize the possible, and even probable, repercussions. Once a state statute had codified and sanctioned the concept that the hormones contained in emergency contraception - hormones identical to those in 21 commonly prescribed brands of birth control pills that are used for EC - could be deemed capable of producing an abortion, it could plausibly be argued that only a physician could legally dispense a daily birth control pill.
The voters wouldn't like that. After all, with 70% of sexually active American women wishing to avoid pregnancy, even most nominally anti-choice women need birth control. The major drug chains wouldn't like the loss of such a lucrative source of income much, either. You know, companies like Walgreens, which is racking up quite a record as a defender of pharmacists who equate their own diplomas with those issued by schools of divinity.
The city of Austin, Texas has even found it necessary to legally constrain Walgreens from denying city employees contraception. Nevertheless, Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin says that his company has a comprehensive policy in place for accommodating the delicate moral sensibilities of any of its more than 15,000 pharmacists who might be so professionally deficient as to believe that emergency contraception is a form of abortion, while making sure that women who would like to avoid a real abortion are able to obtain a simple dose of hormones that gold standard studies show to do nothing but delay ovulation. And Polzin insists that any such refusals are rare events. As he explained after a complaint was lodged against Walgreens in Wichita, Kansas, "We think our policy is a good one and that it first and foremost meets our obligations to take care of the patients' health care needs while at the same time respecting the views of our pharmacists."
Polzin's explanation of Walgreens' "good" policy is quoted in an article detailing the results of a Kentucky study conducted by the Reproductive Freedom Project.
Walgreens: Spokesman Michael Polzin said in a phone interview last week: "We stock it in our pharmacies as we would any other medication, according to demand. Our policy is that we want to respect the views of our pharmacists while still meeting the health care needs of our patients. We feel we can do that by allowing the pharmacists to step away from filling a prescription they have a moral objection to. However, the pharmacist must refer that prescription to another pharmacist on duty," or alert store management. Management will arrange to have it filled at a nearby pharmacy, before the patient leaves the store, he said. One caveat is that where applicable, state law trumps store policy.
And sometimes, as Walgreens found out last year in Illinois, anti-choice intimidation trumps almost anything.
Fortunately for the women of Illinois, Governor Blagojevich wasn't impressed.
So far, if the many published reports of pharmacy refusal complaints are anything to go by, corporate policies haven't let respect for state legal requirements get in the way of respect for "moral objections." As just one example, let's take a peek at pharmacy licensing standards in Texas regarding the filling of prescriptions.
(b) Prescription dispensing and delivery.
Aside from a few lines about the proper packaging and shipping of prescription drugs, that's about it - with nary a word that possibly could be construed as permitting a pharmacy's employees to impose the rigid strictures of their own peculiarly religious, and decidedly unscientific, "views" upon a woman who asks only that a pharmacist do the job for which he or she was issued a professional license, the retention of which is subject to a pharmacist's compliance with state standards of practice.
Even in the absence of a direct order such as the one issued by the governor of Illinois, Texas pharmacists have no legal ground to stand on when refusing to fill a prescription for contraceptives on "moral grounds." That is why Frank Corte recognized the need for his quickly aborted attempt to provide legal cover for dominion-minded pharmacists with his "conscience clause" measure, HB 16. And despite the spin of corporate front men such as Michael Polzin, no straddle-the-fence corporate policy overrides compliance with any state's requirements for pharmacy licensure.
But laws only matter when they're enforced. Last Friday our clinic received a call from a young woman who reported that a pharmacist in her East Texas city had just informed her that his store, owned by a major pharmacy chain with a history of refusal incidents, would not honor her prescription for Plan B because "even if we have it, we don't sell it, for ethical reasons."
The young woman had called because she wanted to help ensure that no other woman would be subjected to such humiliating treatment, and asked for information about how to file a complaint.
On Monday, I had the great pleasure of wishing that young woman every success in her new client relationship with the National Women's Law Center.
[Title image copyrighted by Eleanor Mills, reproduced by permission]
Death of a Conscience Clause | 33 comments (33 topical, 0 hidden)
Death of a Conscience Clause | 33 comments (33 topical, 0 hidden)