Democrats move to protect access to birth control for all American women

More than 100 Democrats in the House and Senate signed onto a bill aimed at ensuring access to birth control following reports that personnel at some pharmacies are refusing to provide contraceptives due to their extreme religious beliefs.

Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday reintroduced the bicameral legislation designed to protect people’s ability to get Food and Drug Administration-approved birth control, including emergency contraception and medication, from pharmacies.

The Access to Birth Control Act requires pharmacies to provide customers requested birth control “without delay” and to refer patients to other pharmacies or order contraception medication when they are out of stock. It also safeguards patients from being intimidated, threatened or harassed by pharmacy employees who don’t support contraceptives.

Pharmacies that violate the law could face civil penalties of up to $1,000 per day with a maximum of $100,000 and a private cause of action for patients wanting relief.

The legislation has earned support from at least 121 lawmakers, comprising 99 House representatives and 22 senators. Fifty national and local advocacy organizations have also backed the bill, including Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights. 

U.S. Senator Tim Kaine initially introduced the Access to Birth Control (ABC) Act in May 2016, to ensure that any woman with a valid prescription is not denied service or intimidated when requesting birth control or emergency contraception at pharmacies.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced identical measures in the Senate and House.

“Birth control is essential health care—full stop. And it’s health care that helps ensure everyone can control their own bodies, lives and futures,” said Murray. “With reproductive rights under attack from every angle, we’ve got to stand up and make clear that no one should be able to come between a patient and the birth control they need—including being turned away at the pharmacy.”

According to the National Women’s Law Center, pharmacists have refused to fill prescriptions for birth control or provide emergency contraception over the counter to patients in 24 states and the District of Columbia.

In addition, the ongoing coronavirus crisis has exacerbated barriers to contraception access, with one in three women experiencing delays in obtaining their birth control during the pandemic.

“During the Trump Administration, some health care providers—including pharmacists—denied patients care simply based on their personal views,” said Maloney. “Health care providers must do their jobs based on science—not ideology—and we cannot let this dangerous trend continue.”

“People’s access to birth control should never be restricted by a pharmacy employee’s personal beliefs,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “We’re glad to support this bill that will make sure everyone can leave a pharmacy with the birth control they need, without discrimination, harassment, or delay. At a time when extremist politicians are trying every way possible to take away our reproductive health care, it’s urgent to secure federal protections like the ABC Act.”

“Birth control allows people to decide if, and when, they want to become pregnant, and how they want to live their life, as well as the freedom to exercise their autonomy,” said Lisa McCormick, a progressive activist in New Jersey. “An American citizen’s access to birth control should not be limited by anyone else’s religious beliefs.”

“Access to contraception is a protected right for women,” said McCormick. “Your access shouldn’t depend on the zip code you live in, the state where you reside or the superstitions of a drug store employee.”

McCormick has also called for FDA approval of over-the-counter abortion pills, involving two drugs: mifepristone and misoprostol.

The Supreme Court of the United States rejected a case brought by pharmacists who cited religion in refusing to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception, leaving in place regulations adopted in 2007 by the Washington State Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission specifying that pharmacies must dispense all FDA-approved drugs to customers regardless of religious or moral reasons.

“When a woman walks into a pharmacy, she should not fear being turned away of the religious beliefs of the owner or the person behind the counter,” stated Louise Melling, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberty Union.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 53% of all pregnancies in New Jersey in 2010 were unintended.

Plan B has been available over-the-counter for women of all ages nationwide since 2013. It can lower the risk of pregnancy by as much as 89% if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.

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