Access to Birth Control Under Threat?

Forty years after the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law that outlawed the use of contraception by married couples, one of the state's senior congressmen is introducing legislation to make sure women aren't prevented from having their birth control prescriptions filled.

In the June 1965 decision in Griswold vs. Connecticut, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution provides a right to privacy in marital relations and that couples could not be denied birth control counseling or access to birth control.

Estelle Griswold brought the case with her husband in an act of civil disobedience. As executive director of Planned Parenthood of Connecticut in the early 1960s, she and her volunteers were unable to offer contraceptives to clients. Instead, they gave women rides to Rhode Island and New York, where it was easier to get birth control products and information.

Abortion Battle Hits the Pharmacy Counter

Griswold prevailed, but 40 years later women's access to birth control is still being restricted, say some reproductive rights advocates, prompting Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. to co-sponsor the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act (ALPhA).

The legislation was spurred by a number of reports from around the country of pharmacists who have refused to dispense emergency contraception or denied refills on monthly birth control prescriptions.

Shays joined Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Debbie Wasserman-Schwartz, D-Fla., in drafting ALPhA, which would bar pharmacies from denying the sale of physician-prescribed prescription medications because of their employees' religious beliefs.

Four states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, and South Dakota -- have laws or regulations that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, under so-called "conscience clauses." And 13 other states have introduced similar bills. On Tuesday, Illinois drew closer to making permanent a temporary rule requiring pharmacies there to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception.

ALPhA would protect the right of individual pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, but it would also require pharmacies to ensure that patients' prescription requests are accommodated without significant delay.

Reproductive rights advocates say traditional contraception is getting caught up in the debate over emergency contraceptives, the "morning after" or "Plan B" pill, which can prevent a fertilized egg from leading to a pregnancy if taken within 120 hours of intercourse.

"Anti-choice activists are conflating the issue of abortion, and they're moving the battlefield to birth control," said Jackie Payne, Planned Parenthood's assistant director of government relations.

Some anti-abortion rights groups see the issue as central to their fight.

Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, said pharmacists should not be forced to prescribe medication they find morally objectionable nor should they be required to refer patients to pharmacists who would willingly dispense those medications.

Brauer says she lost her job at a Cincinnati-area pharmacy after refusing to dispense an emergency contraception prescription.

For their part, national drugstore chains have been scrambling to adopt policies that serve their customers while still supporting their employees' rights to exercise religious and moral beliefs.

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