Some pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions

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Elise Graham, 22, of Fort Worth, Texas, was not sexually active,

but began taking birth control pills when she was 14 years old to subdue the symptoms of her period.

She regularly suffered severe sickness the week before, during, and after her period, which gave her only one normal week a month. Her father, an obstetrician, and her mother, a registered nurse, felt she needed to receive a low dose of estrogen to subdue the symptoms.

“I was worried about what other people thought about me taking birth control pills,” Graham said. “I thought they would think I was sexually active, but once I went back to school and wasn’t sick anymore, I felt normal.”

Graham said her periods shortened in length, weren’t as heavy, she was in a better mood, and the overall pain was remarkably less once she began taking birth control pills. She said she used to throw up because of the pain, but stopped after taking the pills.

“(Birth control) is vital to my well-being,” Graham said. “I don’t know what I would do if my pharmacist wouldn’t fill my prescription. I would probably be picketing on the corner.”

Although doctors prescribe birth control pills, some pharmacists have taken it upon themselves to not only refuse to fill prescriptions, but also to deny a referral to another pharmacist or pharmacy based on their moral, ethical or religious objections. This has reportedly occurred in 11 states, including California.

The American Pharmacists Association recently confirmed its policy that pharmacists can refuse to fill prescriptions as long as they make sure customers are able to get their medications some other way. The Conscience Clause is legislation that was enacted in eleven states to protect pharmacists when they decide to not fill a prescription.

J.T. Finn, a Pro-Life America representative, said he stands by pharmacists who refuse birth control and emergency contraception on moral or religious grounds. He said he believes birth control and emergency contraception are forms of abortion.

“Many women do not know what the documents say right in their own birth control pill packages,” Finn said. “They say that the pills prevent the implantation of an embryo in the uterine wall, which makes the product abortive in the first week of life.”

The main issue between pro-choice and pro-life advocates concerning birth control and emergency contraception is the decision of when life begins, whether at the point of conception or implantation, said Amy Reichbach, health educator at the Klotz Student Health Center.

Finn said he believes life begins at conception, the moment the sperm enters the egg.

The medical establishment, Reichbach said, believes that life begins at the implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterine wall.

“Women have the right to privacy and the right to contraception,” said Amy Everitt, state director of Pro-Choice America. “I believe it is every woman’s right to make (her) own decision.”

There are some side effects to be concerned with when taking birth control, Reichbach said. One percent of birth control users experience hypertension, three to four women out of every 100,000 get benign liver tumors, and those on the pill longer than two years have a small, but increased, risk of gallbladder disease.

“The health benefits to taking birth control outweigh the side effects or risks even for those who are not sexually active,” Reichbach said. “Women will have fewer menstrual cramps, fewer days of bleeding, less anxiety and depression prior to (their) period, less fibrocystic breast condition, and (it) reduces the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer.”

Jennifer Santos, a 21-year-old journalism major, has been taking birth control pills for the past two years. She said her doctor said she should take them to ease symptoms of her heavy periods, because the pills would give her lighter cycles. Her doctor also said the pills would ease her fear of getting pregnant before she is ready.

“At the time, I was not in a serious relationship,” Santos said. “The pills were definitely a serious relief. I am glad to be able to choose and have the right to have a child at the time I want.”

For many women wanting to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to relieve menstruation symptoms, the risks are worth it.

“Men have died using Viagra,” Reichbach said. “So should men be denied their Viagra, just as some women have been denied their birth control due to ethical health reasons?”

But the health risks are not necessarily the problem with birth control, Finn said. Birth control pills really have to do with promoting sexual promiscuity, he said.

“They are playing Russian Roulette with their lives,” Finn said.

But research shows that birth control does not promote sexual promiscuity, Everitt said. Whether effective ways of contraception or ‘abstinence only’ programs are taught, behavior does not change.

Research shows that if students are not taught how to have safe sex, there is a rise in STDs, Everitt said.

“It is important to create a safe environment that promotes the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and STDs,” Everitt said. “Prevention programs would give people access to information that abstinence only programs do not.”

According to a survey conducted in 2002 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 82 percent of all women who were sexually active between the ages of 15 and 44 took birth control pills as their primary method of contraception. Research has also shown that birth control pills can be beneficial in a number of medicinal ways, as Graham has experienced.

“According to trends among American women, 50 percent of all unwanted pregnancies are terminated,” Reichbach said. “Birth control pills prevent 89 percent of all unwanted pregnancies for those who take them.”

According to the National Abortion Federation, 1.3 million abortions occur per year.

Some pharmacists, who have issues concerning abortion rights and do not want to contribute to any abortive measure, deny women their birth control pills and Plan B emergency contraception, also known as the day after pill, Reichbach said.

These pharmacists are not aware of the fact that 50 percent of the women they turn away will have a medical or surgical abortion regardless of their pharmacist’s beliefs, Reichbach said.

“Abortion is also legal, even though birth control and emergency contraception is not considered to be abortion,” Reichbach said.

Officials in four states are preparing bills that would force pharmacists to fill the prescriptions. Planned Parenthood and Pro-Choice America are lobbying for two bills, which are now in the California state Legislature.

“It is really scary that (pharmacists) get to choose how (women) make decisions about (their) own bod(ies),” Santos said.