Target Pharmacists Can Refuse 'Plan B' Prescriptions

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Independent companies are now joining the political fray over the emergency contraception medication known as Plan B. The Target retail chain now allows pharmacists at its stores to refuse to fill Plan B prescriptions, saying they are respecting the religious beliefs of its employees under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

More controversy surrounding emergency contraception. Earlier this week, the Government Accountability Office found that top FDA officials made a highly unusual decision. They refused to let the so-called morning-after pill be sold without a prescription before hearing the recommendation of their own scientists. Those FDA scientists concluded the drug, known as Plan B, is safe for over-the-counter use. Well, now retail giant Target is at the center of a controversy involving the drug. Target is allowing its pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for Plan B. Here's Target spokeswoman Lena Michaud.

Ms. LENA MICHAUD (Target Spokeswoman): Our pharmacists are required to get our guests' prescriptions filled. In the rare event a pharmacist beliefs conflict with filling a guest prescription for the emergency contraceptive Plan B, our policy requires that our pharmacist take responsibility for ensuring that that prescription gets filled in a timely, respectful manner, either by another Target pharmacist or at a different nearby pharmacy.

BRAND: What if there isn't another pharmacy nearby?

Ms. MICHAUD: Most Targets are in metropolitan, suburban or urban areas, so, you know, there's very likely to be another pharmacy very close by.

BRAND: Well, that's not good enough for pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood who say Target's policy is still too onerous. The effectiveness of Plan B declines the longer a woman has to wait to take it, and so they say having to wait to go elsewhere is unacceptable. Planned Parenthood has been waging a campaign to get stores to clarify their policies about pharmacist refusals. On its Web site, the group gives companies a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down rating. Thumbs-up for Costco, CVS and Kmart. Thumbs-down for Target, Rite Aid and for Wal-Mart, which doesn't even stock emergency contraception. Karen Pearl is the interim president of Planned Parenthood.

Ms. KAREN PEARL (Interim President, Planned Parenthood): We have worked with a lot of pharmacists who understand that there may be somebody in their store who does not want to fill a prescription, but each of them--Kmart, CVS, Costco--have come forward and worked out a plan for a woman to get her prescription filled in-store without delay. And we wonder why Target can't do the same. You know, this is basic health care for women. And corporations should be standing behind the women who've come into their store who want access to birth control.

BRAND: Plan B has become a flash point in the abortion debate. FDA scientists classify it as a contraceptive, but some abortion opponents say there's a chance the drug works by not allowing a fertilized egg to be implanted in the uterus and is, therefore, akin to abortion. Target says the company must allow pharmacists to refuse to prescribe the drug under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for their employees' religious beliefs. But Target's religious accommodation applies only to this one drug, says spokeswoman Lena Michaud.

Ms. MICHAUD: Because we understand some people perceive this drug differently and some people believe that it conflicts with their religious belief.

BRAND: But that's not the only drug the conflicts with people's religious beliefs.

Ms. MICHAUD: Possibly not, but this is the one that we've kind of carved out, and I'm not going to go into the detail behind the decision-making process around this, but I can simply confirm that this only applies to Plan B, and that we will still ensure that every Plan B prescription that comes to our store does get filled, even if in rare instances it's by a different pharmacy.

BRAND: Many states are considering legislation on the matter, but only eight have formal laws: four states explicitly ordering pharmacists to fill every prescription and four letting pharmacists opt out if they have religious or moral objections.

And as to why now, why have pharmacists' refusals been in the news recently? Well, one women's rights lawyer says that with all the controversy over the FDA refusing to allow Plan B to be sold over the counter, more people are now aware of the drug. More women now know there is such a thing as the morning-after pill, and so they're asking for it, and the more women ask, the more conflicts there are with pharmacists who don't want to dispense it.

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