Women deserve the chance to prevent pregnancy after birth control failure, sexual assault, or unprotected sex. Emergency contraception, also known as the "morning-after pill," is FDA-approved and prevents pregnancy after sexual intercourse. But it is time-sensitive; it only works if women are able to obtain it without delay or discrimination.
Unfortunately, healthcare providers are refusing to dispense emergency contraception based on their own religious or moral beliefs, thereby overriding women's decisions about their bodies and lives. Pharmacists in at least 24 states have refused to sell birth control or emergency contraception to women. Some hospital emergency rooms refuse to provide emergency contraception to rape victims.
Some healthcare providers even lie to women—for example, by saying it will cause an abortion. In one case, a woman believed a Wisconsin pharmacist who called her a murderer. Although it will not work once a woman is pregnant, she did not fill her prescription and got pregnant. In a California incident, a couple with a newborn sought emergency contraception after birth control failure. The pharmacist called them irresponsible, refused to fill the prescription, and did not enter it into the system so that it could be transferred elsewhere.
Laws should require all hospitals and pharmacies to establish a system to ensure that women in need of birth control, including in emergency situations, receive it without discrimination and delay. Individual healthcare providers with religious objections may be accommodated—for example, by making sure two pharmacists are on duty—but not at the expense of patient access to critical healthcare. This approach is consistent with long-standing protections for individual religious beliefs in the workplace. Refusing providers must treat patients with respect and ensure that patients receive care from another provider. They cannot—as one Wisconsin pharmacist did—leave customers waiting indefinitely for assistance in the store and on the phone. A patient should not even know her healthcare professional objects.
Refusals often result in women feeling judged, shamed, angry, and vulnerable, and they reduce women's trust in the healthcare system. Additionally, refusals violate informed consent, restricting women's information and options. Delays or denials of emergency contraception can lead to pregnancy. For some women, pregnancy can entail severe health risks and even life endangerment. A refusal to provide emergency contraception can further traumatize an already traumatized woman—like a rape survivor. Refusals are most burdensome on people in rural areas, or those with low incomes and no job flexibility. For example, an Ohio woman refused emergency contraception at her local pharmacy had to drive 45 miles to find another pharmacy. And some women may be limited by their insurance plan to a particular pharmacy or provider.
Recognizing the harm of refusals, states, national professional associations, and pharmacy chains have acted to protect women's access to emergency contraception. Twenty-three states and Washington, D.C., have laws and/or policies that improve women's access to it, such as requiring hospitals to provide it to rape survivors. Major pharmacy chains have adopted policies ensuring that women leave the pharmacy with contraception in hand. Professional healthcare associations have issued guidance protective of patients' right to receive care. The religious beliefs of pharmacists, doctors, nurses, or other healthcare providers should not trump a woman's ability to make decisions about her reproductive health. Those decisions are personal, and they should stay that way.