Chill pill

Nov 16, 2005 at 12:00 am

The recent disclosure that Target allows pharmacists at its stores nationwide to refuse to dispense emergency contraception on religious grounds got News Hits to wondering if that’s actually legal in Michigan.

We checked into it and were told the law here isn’t clear one way or the other. But this much is certain: Conservatives in the state Legislature want it chiseled in stone that such policies are allowed.

Three bills under consideration in the state House, taken in total, would allow pharmacists, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies the right to refuse to provide contraceptive services on the basis of moral, ethical or religious grounds.

Target’s policy is geared strictly toward Plan B, a brand of emergency contraception. The drug reduces the chance of pregnancy if taken three to five days after having sex.

The Minneapolis-based company’s policy requires pharmacists refusing to fill such a prescription to hand the job off to a colleague or refer the customer to another pharmacy.

“What we’re trying to do is strike a balance,” says Target spokeswoman Lena Michaud.

But there’s no corporate policy about how many pharmacists are on duty at any given time, which some see as a real problem.

“Can you imagine being a young woman who needs emergency contraception having her prescription denied?” asks Marta Coursey, communications director for Planned Parenthood Minnesota. “That would be demeaning under any circumstances, and in many cases — especially in small town areas — not only is it humiliating, it jeopardizes a woman’s health, because emergency contraception needs to be taken within 72 to 120 hours.”

“We are not asking Target to disown or dishonor their employees’ religious beliefs. It’s a simple solution — just come out with a policy that says you will have another pharmacist there,” Coursey says.

Mystifyingly, Target is using the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to justify its policy.

“We feel we need to abide by the law, and part of that means accommodating our employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs,” Michaud says.

Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU, says that interpretation of the Civil Rights Act is “ridiculous.”

“The Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion or disability — discrimination,” Moss says. “That doesn’t mean Target has the right to enforce the religious beliefs of every one of their employees on their customers.”

The three bills pending in the Michigan House greatly expand the scope of this debate. Rebekah Warren of MARAL Pro-choice Michigan in Lansing says the proposed legislation poses a real threat if passed.

“For a lot of Michigan women, that could mean an hour drive to the nearest pharmacy. For those women who need emergency contraception, it could mean a rise in unplanned pregnancies,” Warren says. “If the woman can’t find a pharmacy in 72 to 120 hours, that increases the chance of pregnancy.”

The bills were introduced in May by Reps. Scott Hummel (R-Clinton and Gratiot counties), John Stahl (R-Lapeer County) and Brian Palmer (R-Macomb County). All three bills are currently in committee.

Bill Browne, Palmer’s chief of staff, says his boss’ legislation isn’t intended to discriminate against women.

“It’s a bill that would allow for a conscientious objection for a person not to perform a specific medical procedure, or any sort of action the person would have a conscientious objection to. What that service might be we wouldn’t define,” Browne says. In Palmer’s bill, an employee would be required to notify the employer in advance. The objectionable act, Browne says, couldn’t be more than 10 percent of the employee’s total workload.

These aren’t the only bills on the table right now with troubling implications for women’s rights in Michigan. A handful of bills introduced to the state House this year include: additional restrictions on the information counselors at publicly funded agencies are allowed to offer pregnant women, changes within abstinence-only sex education programs and a requirement that women receive ultrasounds 24 hours before having an abortion, even when it’s not medically necessary.

“That one is emotionally manipulative,” Warren says about that last measure. “The legislature requiring a medical procedure is just problematic to us. And who’s going to pay for these ultrasounds?”

Possibly not insurance companies, since another bill introduced in February by Hummel would require women to purchase a separate insurance rider to pay for abortions.

“Whose right of conscience should be paramount, the health care provider? The insurance company? The medical facility? We keep arguing that patient care has to be paramount in the health care conversation,” Warren says.

But that argument is falling on a lot of deaf ears in Lansing.

“We have a majority of anti-choice legislators in the House and the Senate,” Warren says. “That’s one of the reasons we do most of our work at the grassroots level — we don’t have the votes or resources to fight it in the Legislature.”

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