By JOHN SEAGER
WASHINGTON -- Astounded -- outraged. That's my reaction to the latest tactic of ideologues who want to deny women the right to use birth control by allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill their prescriptions.
Shockingly, state legislators, who are charged with protecting the well-being of all their constituents, have joined with these fundamentalists and are now giving legislative cover to pharmacists who deny women their prescriptions. Four states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Dakota -- have passed laws allowing pharmacists to refuse to dispense medications.
This year alone, bills protecting pharmacists' refusals have been introduced in 15 states, including Rhode Island. Fortunately, legislators in Rhode Island realized that a medical decision made between a woman and her physician must be respected, and the bill died in committee. But the fight is not over.
In New Hampshire, a Brooks pharmacist denied a woman her emergency contraception and refused to transfer her prescription. By the time the pharmacy addressed the matter, it was too late.
Complaints have surfaced around the country about pharmacists' refusing to fill prescriptions at some CVS drugstores, the Rhode Island-based chain. CVS lets pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions, letting them refer the prescription to another pharmacist or another CVS pharmacy -- but this referral process is not always seamless. A student at the University of Massachusetts filled out an online request to renew her birth control, but when she arrived at the pharmacy, the pharmacist told her he had deleted her request from the computer because he didn't want to fill it. (Another pharmacist on duty then filled the prescription.)
Forty years ago, Griswold vs. Connecticut affirmed the constitutional right to privacy, allowing married couples to make their own decisions about whether to use contraception. The Supreme Court extended this right to all individuals more than 30 years ago. Every person was given the constitutional right to make the most personal of all decisions: whether or not to have a child.
Today, we take access to birth-control pills for granted. Contraceptives are now the most common drug among American women in their childbearing years. An article in the June issue of Science reminds us that without contraception, the average woman would bear between 12 and 15 children.
Sadly, a handful of pharmacists and right-wing legislators are trying to turn back the clock on this basic component of reproductive health care. Across the country, pharmacists with a personal, "moral" objection to birth control are refusing to fill doctors' prescriptions for their patients.
Protect customers' rights
Pharmacists have a responsibility to provide their customers with the medicines prescribed by their doctors. They have no right to substitute their own judgment for that of the customer or the physician.
That's why it's important for Congress to pass the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act. Introduced in the House of Representatives by Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and in the Senate by Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the legislation would protect people who expect their drugstore to sell them the medicine prescribed by their doctors.
Americans value individual rights and an individual conscience, but we correctly place limits on the exercise of those rights in the public sphere. A real-estate agent who believes that interracial marriage is immoral may not refuse to sell a house to such a couple. A business owner may not fire a single woman because she is pregnant nor refuse to hire a married woman because he believes she should remain at home.
Pharmacists' refusing to fill prescriptions because they object to the medicine falls into the same category. The responsibility to meet the needs of the customer must take precedence.
And the law should ensure that it does.
X John Seager is president of Population Connection, formerly Zero Population Growth. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,