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PLAN B POLITICS HARD TO SWALLOW

I respect the feelings of those pharmacists who, as a matter of conscience, refuse to sell the new "morning-after" emergency contraception pill. I also respectfully disagree with them. In fact, I wonder how many of the druggists who object to dispensing the morning-after pill have no objection to selling those erectile dysfunction drugs, like the one that advertises that we should consult our doctor if an erection lasts more than four hours. The issue of "conscientious objections," as the Ohio-based group called Pharmacists for Life International calls it, has bubbled up in recent months with more than 100 reports of pharmacists who just say no to dispensing the morning-after pill, also known as Plan B. Two dozen states have responded with a patchwork of legal and political actions.

For example, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently made national headlines by ordering all pharmacies, although not all pharmacists, in his state to fill Plan B prescriptions after a Chicago drugstore refused to fill two. The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill to let pharmacists dispense the pill without a doctor's prescription and require all hospitals to make it available to all rape victims. A bill in California would require objecting pharmacists to be prepared to make referrals.

Arkansas, South Dakota, Mississippi and Georgia have "conscience clause" laws that allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense any drugs related to contraception or abortion on moral grounds. In about a dozen other states, legislators are considering similar bills.

Who knows how many women and teen girls in distress already have been turned away and been too upset or embarrassed by the experience to go public. How many would have the fortitude, in such circumstances, to object when a zealous anti-choice pharmacist refuses, in a supposed act of conscience, to refer them to another pharmacy, or even to give their prescription back?

These are the sorts of control-freak actions that Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, favors. Besides refusing to fill the scrip, she advocates preaching a morality lecture to the would-be consumer.

Pharmacists are neither doctors nor clergy. Those who want to give lectures might try another line of work, especially when their zealotry in the pharmacy only serves to delay something as time-sensitive as emergency contraception.

Unlike the French drug RU-486, Plan B is not an abortion drug. Best taken within 24 hours of unprotected intercourse, the morning-after pill mainly works to prevent fertilization. Whether it blocks a fertilized egg from becoming implanted in the uterus has been a matter of fierce debate.

Of course, much of this Plan B dispute would become moot if the Food and Drug Administration approves the morning-after pill for over-the-counter sale. The agency's scientists and review panels support that move, but abortion politics are blocking it in Washington.

While we wait for common sense to invade the nation's capital again, here's my suggestion: If druggists want to argue that they have the right to pick and choose which prescriptions to fill, they should be required to post their choices at the front door, so customers can avoid an embarrassing confrontation.

And, as a matter of gender equity, we need to inconvenience men, too. Stores that refuse to sell Plan B on moral grounds, for example, should be prohibited from selling any male-oriented sex aids, too, including drugs that might give you a four-hour you-know-what.

After all, selling sex-enhancement drugs to men while denying morning-after pills to women dodges moral responsibility, too. It's sort of like sowing your wild oats on Saturday nights, then praying on Sunday morning for crop failure.

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