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BONNIE ERBE Religious oppression found at the drugstore



Published: Thu, April 7, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Here's an outrage for you. There's a growing movement among pharmacists and even doctors to refuse to provide legal and necessary health services.

Let's start with pharmacists. In at least 10 states, they have refused to fill prescriptions for birth control citing moral and religious beliefs. In so doing, they have incited a nationwide outcry by women (and their men) who rely on such basic medical services.

According to Judy Waxman, vice president of the National Women's Law Center, "Unfortunately, what is happening is that pharmacists are deciding they do not want to fill the prescription for birth control, which means it's the woman who is in every case going to be the person who is refused her prescription. And that is clearly sex discrimination."

While I don't fully buy Waxman's view (it hurts these women's male partners too, since they may not wish to become fathers against their will), it gets worse than that. Some pharmacists "just say no" to filling the prescriptions. Others don't offer these women alternative locations where they can get them filled. A few zealous pharmacists have actually gone off the deep end and refused to return the prescriptions to the women for whom they were written. That's obstruction -- someone who is licensed by the state to provide a medical service (to wit, the pharmacist) has instead barred a customer from obtaining that service.

Expanding the law

Although pharmacists can face penalties for obstructing state laws, only one case has gone before a judge. And according to the National Women's Law Center, four states allow pharmacists to legally refuse service. Wisconsin is considering expanding its law.

The type of birth control being denied to customers is at issue, too. Many of these women are filling prescriptions for birth control pills, but in high doses they become so-called emergency contraception. Or they're taking RU-486, the "morning after pill." If not taken within a relatively short time after unprotected sex, emergency contraception doesn't work.

The Washington Post recently recounted the story of one woman refused these services, "By the time Suzanne Richards, 21, finally got another pharmacy to fill her morning-after pill prescription ... the 72 hours had long passed."

Evangelical community

All this is of course driven by America's overarching evangelical community. Most religious and even most evangelical Americans are satisfied with abiding by their own religious mores. But the extreme right wing is trying to force the rest of us who don't agree with their tortuous, constricted view of scripture to live by their self-imposed rules nonetheless.

My question back to these same pharmacists would be, who's guarding the condom aisle? Do their "consciences" prevent them from filling prescriptions for Viagra and other male sex drugs, especially when unmarried men want to buy them? If they're going to make moral judgments about prescription drugs, let them work at church-run hospitals, instead of in commercial pharmacies. Better yet, drop out of the profession entirely and become missionaries.

Personally, I keep waiting for the day when such zealotry backfires and tips the weight of American public opinion against religious oppression, because that is what it is quickly becoming. If state-licensed health care workers can impose their religious views on Americans who do not share them, what is the difference between the United States and the Iranian theocracy?

X Erbe writes this column for Scripps Howard.




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