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August 09, 2006

Breakfast at the NARAL Corral

The Pharmacy Board issue was the topic at the NARAL Pro-Choice Washington breakfast last Wednesday.  NARAL brought together a diverse group of folks to talk about where we are on the Pharmacy Board ruling and why we find ourselves having to defend something so basic as a woman's right to contraception.  The panel included Representative Dawn Morrell of the 25th LD, a nurse and Vice Chair of the House Health Committee; Senator Karen Keiser of the 33rd LD, who is Chair of the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee; Vandana Slatter, a pharmacist and also a member of NARAL's Board; and Marc Brenman, Executive Director of the Washington State Human Rights Commission.

Karen Cooper, Executive Director of NARAL in Washington started off providing the big picture.  She reminded us that Washington is a good state for women; we passed our version of Roe in 1971, a year before the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade.  Yet, the attacks keep coming, both nationally and here in the state.  There's the ban on abortions in South Dakota, the paucity of abortion providers in many state and rural areas, official attempts to provide medically inaccurate information (my favorite ridiculous idea is the attempt to link incidents of breast cancer to abortion). 

Here in this state we are having to fight a threatened rule by the Washington State Board of Pharmacy that would allow individual pharmacists the right to refuse to fill prescriptions if they decide it is against their beliefs.  It looks like the ruling may not be passed by the Board now that the Governor has made her views known persuasively but the fact that a sneaky, national campaign for a "pharmacist's right of refusal" could get this far in Washington State is unnerving.  See earlier posts here and here.

Dawn Morrell spoke first, saying how much she appreciated the governor's working so effectively with the Board to reach what seems to be an understanding about withdrawing the ruling in question.  She said it was hard to imagine what we'd be dealing with if Gregoire had not won the gubernatorial race.  Dawn then reminded us of how much our pharmacists know about us.  There is a relationship between pharmacists and their patients and it should be a relationship of trust that the pharmacist has our best interests in mind.  She also said that twenty-eight legislators had signed a letter to the Pharmacy Board asking them to rethink their earlier position.

Senator Karen Keiser, long a friend of NARAL and women in the state, spoke next.  Karen said that she appreciated the support of the people in the room.  She said we are in a battle and referred us to an article in the New York Times magazine section this spring entitled "The War on Contraception" which laid out the strategy that the right-wing has adopted to whittle down the right of women to contraception in this country.  (Article is behind the NYT subscription wall.  Planned Parenthood has a good summary of it here.)  There is an intentional strategy to make contraception the next big fight.  They are determined to equate a fertilized egg with a living being, thus making the use of contraception an abortion.  This is fuzzy thinking. 

She said that pharmacists are professionals.  They already have the right to refuse to fill prescriptions on professional medical grounds, i.e. because of a combination of drugs that don't work together or other medically related difficulties.  It is also alright for a pharmacy that serves elders, i.e., not to stock medicines for children.  However we will not allow them to refuse to dispense drugs based on ethical decisions.  Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, for example, is not stocking Plan B at all. 

We need to reframe this as an issue of discrimination against women.  We will pass a law the revokes the license of any business that refuses to dispense medication based on ethical preferences.  And, she again reminded us that we would be in a world of hurt had Gregoire lost the last election.  Nevertheless, we might not always have a friend in the governor's office.  That's why we need the legislation.

If we need to, as Chair of the Health and Long-Term Care Committee in the House, Keiser said they would hold up the nominations to the Board, none of which were finalized last year.

Keiser went on say that this is what educators call "an educatable moment".

Next up was Marc Brenman, new to the discussion of women's health in this state.  Brenman said that he is a bureaucrat, not a politician.  He is with an agency that enforces the state laws against discrimination and has jurisdiction over all employers in the state with more than 8 employees.  He said that he was recently talking on a conference call with folks from other states that do what he does.  They were talking about civil rights legislation and how this idea that pharmacists have a "right to refuse" was creeping across the country.

Brenman was clear that in his mind there is no freedom to impose one's religious beliefs on others.  He also said that Governor Gregoire has made it quite clear that this Pharmacy Board is not following her guidance and she is prepared to take steps to deal with it if necessary.  He went on to say that early on the Human Rights Commission wrote a letter to the Board saying that they saw this potential ruling as discrimination against a class of women.  That letter is available on their website.  The "right of refusal" is a very slippery slope.  Who's to say what other reasons a pharmacist might have to decide to refuse to fill a prescription? 

Brenman also sees this as a consumer protection issue and has contacted the Attorney General asking him to consider it as such. 

He ended his talk saying that he has learned that there is a lot of backsliding on human rights issues, even in this state.  He said we have to prevent the rise of an American Taliban and have to be on guard against the imposition of some version of Sharia law here.

Vandana Slatter, a board member of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington said that she never expected to be in the position of having her work life and Board interests intersect so closely.  She said she was joined by other pharmacists at the Pharmacist's table at the event, all there to fight for a woman's right to choose. 

Slatter said that the role of the pharmacist has long been considered critical.  Pharmacists have always placed the needs of their patients first.  This new idea of "right of refusal" is the work of a few people and is a deliberate attempt to further the agenda of the religious right.  It is not the majority view.  She said that Washington State pharmacists have been leaders in dispensing emergency contraception and have dispensed 200,000 prescriptions since 1997.  She said that emergency contraception prevents unintended pregnancy and will not interfere with or harm an established pregnancy.  It therefore does not cause an abortion.  It is generally used when the primary form of birth control for a woman has failed or for woman who have been raped.  Every patient should receive respectful service.  It is the pharmacist's responsibility to protect the public's safety, not to further their own personal bias or belief.  She said she believes that most pharmacists are able to separate their personal beliefs from their professional duties.

Karen Cooper wrapped up the panel by saying that NARAL had send 9000 messages to the Pharmacy Board and that Planned Parenthood had sent another 7000.  The Board has really heard from the citizens of the state as well as from a large contingent of legislators and elected officials.  She said that choice is the wedge issue that differentiates candidates and that NARAL is hard at work helping out the candidates that will stand with us.

She reminded us that NARAL is the organization that does this work and that they cannot do it without the support of the folks in that room.  There are challenges crashing in on us and contraception is under attack in this state.  Help them out if you can. 

The last person to speak was Darcy Burner, Democratic candidate for Congress in the 8th CD.  Darcy said that she is running against one of the most anti-choice candidates in the country.  She said our founding fathers decided that there would be a sphere of liberty that could not be interfered with at any level.  There are rights reserved to individuals and those rights are incredibly important.  Freedom of religion is one of those and is a fundamental right in this country.

It was a great event and I applaud Karen and the NARAL folks for pulling together such a diverse group to proclaim such a critical message. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on August 9, 2006 at 01:18 AM in Taking Action, Washington Culture | Permalink


We're fortunate to have Karen Keiser as our Senator in the 33rd legislative district. She speaks cogently and knowledgably on this issue, and as soon as the Yahoo Pharmacy Board announced support for pharmacists to refuse Plan B, she immediately spoke up. Good on ya, gal!

Posted by: paco and taco | Aug 9, 2006 8:16:29 PM

Hmm... let's see.

Darcy Burner said, "our founding fathers decided that there would be a sphere of liberty that could not be interfered with at any level. There are rights reserved to individuals and those rights are incredibly important. Freedom of religion is one of those and is a fundamental right in this country."

And Senator Karen Keiser said, "We will pass a law the revokes the license of any business that refuses to dispense medication based on ethical preferences."

Marc Brenman "was clear that in his mind there is no freedom to impose one's religious beliefs on others."

Do you see the contradiction? Perhaps if I point out that many of the pharmacists in question base their ethics on their religious beliefs?

To demand that your beliefs must be respected, but that the beliefs of others must not? Is this not surely the route to tyranny?

If you believe there should be pharmacists who should dispense this pill, recruit people to be pharmacists who believe the pill should be dispensed. But just as the pro-choice people have demanded for years "Keep your laws off my body," pharmacists can say "keep your laws off my beliefs." You cannot have it both ways.

Posted by: Allen McPheeters | Aug 11, 2006 10:08:57 AM

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