Cashiers for Life

Cristina Page

William Saletan thinks indulging extremists and inviting them to take charge of our health care is at worst a minor inconvenience for women.

William Saletan, the Slate columnist who’s made a career of
claiming to be pro-choice while justifying attacks on reproductive
rights, has had yet another epiphany: We should all support the rights
of pharmacists to refuse to fill our doctor’s prescriptions for birth
control. According to Saletan, who defends pharmacy refusals in his
June 19 piece "Drugstore Choirboy,"

You bring your scrip to the pharmacy, and the guy at the counter says,
"Sorry, we don’t stock contraceptives." That’s annoying and, in my
view, stupid. But nobody’s walling you in. Your burden consists of
finding another pharmacy.

William Saletan, one assumes, has not
had to drive twenty-five miles to a second pharmacy – the case in a
large swath of rural America – because a pharmacist imposed his moral
beliefs on him. But then Saletan, one assumes, has never filled a
prescription for birth control, has he? (Condoms are available at every
7-11 — though William should be advised that the people he finds it
provocative to defend would like to see the condom banned too.)

Saletan’s
proposed solution is to post a polite sign explaining the pharmacy does
not fill birth control prescriptions. Saletan apparently thinks
indulging extremists and, indeed, inviting them to take charge of our
health care, to, in effect, supersede our doctors’ recommendations is a
minor inconvenience. If, however, we’re going to let everyone’s political
beliefs or religious enthusiasms govern our important life decisions,
then we must allow that any political or religious convictions can hold
sway.

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In this case, why not permit a Muslim fundamentalist pharmacist
to simply put up a sign politely explaining that his religious beliefs
require him to deny a woman’s prescription for any medication? No doubt
Aryan pharmacists have a belief system too. Why should they be forced
to violate their dearly held beliefs and serve blacks? (It’s worth
pointing out that not filling birth control prescriptions is not merely
discrimination by product category, is it? The pharmacist is
discriminating against women.) By Saletan’s lights, it seems that a "We
don’t fill prescriptions for black people" sign should not be a
violation of black people’s rights as long as it’s accompanied by a 24
hour hotline, as Saletan proposed for those denied birth control,
directing them to the nearest pharmacy that will serve them.

And,
then to follow Saletan’s thought line further, why should ethical
concerns be limited to pharmacists? Why should only "pharmacists for
life" get the perk of refusing to do their jobs? Why not, say, cashiers
who just can’t bear the thought of violating their ethical beliefs by
ringing up birth control pills? If we follow Saletan’s advice, isn’t it
just a matter of time before we’ll have Cashiers for Life too? The pack
of condoms and case of beer that provide hundreds of thousands of
Americans with fulfilling Friday nights must first pass the approval of
the cashier who, by Saletan’s logic, has a right to deny those
purchases. As for the rights of the rest of us, all we’ll have to do is
swallow our rage and find ourselves another 7-11.

Saletan’s
argument rests on the smug and dangerously uninformed notion that
anti-family planning acts are fringe acts, and so are best ignored. He
underestimates the scope, commitment, and resources of the
anti-abortion/anti-contraception movement. He fails also to acknowledge
that contraception is life-saving medication too.

Most American
families want (and have) two children meaning women spend about seven
years, on average, getting and being pregnant and about 23 years
preventing pregnancy. Planning a pregnancy leads to dramatic declines
in both maternal mortality and infant mortality. Indeed, the countries
on earth with the lowest maternal and infant mortality rates are those
with the greatest access to and use of contraception. Those with the
highest death rates are countries that deny women and families access
to family planning—many are nations that took Saletan’s route and
simply ignored the fanatics into power.

The best way to move
beyond the abortion debate is to make preventing unwanted pregnancy,
planning a family and protection against disease a top priority.
Instead, we have witnessed in just the last few years a dramatic
increase in activity aimed at rolling back American’s right to use
contraception and protection. Pro-life pharmacists are just this
movement’s warm-up act. This year Colorado is considering a ballot
measure that would define life as beginning at conception, an unknown
biological moment. Rejiggering the science has as its ultimate goal not
only banning abortion, but all hormonal forms of birth control. These
same forces have successfully de-funded the US portion to UNFPA, the
contraception provider to the most desperate regions on earth.

Bush, no
doubt a supporter of "pro-life" pharmacists, has worked closely with
the anti-contraception movement throughout his presidency. One of his
first acts in office was his attempt to strip federal employees and
soldiers of contraceptive coverage. Another was to place at the head of
the nation’s contraception program for the poor an anti-contraception
activist. In fact, he has delivered these activists many more
anti-contraception successes than anti-abortion ones.

Now
presidential-contender McCain is playing footsie with the
anti-contraception movement, coyly refusing to answer reporters’
questions on whether he supports contraception.

Saletan is no
doubt under pressure to think provocative thoughts several times a
week. What he doesn’t see is that if we allow extremists to intercede
in our medical lives by simply putting up a sign then the writing is,
as they say, already on the wall.

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