Walmart picket

(WOMENSENEWS)–The political battle over the “morning after pill” is raging, with proposed legislation in 15 states that would protect a pharmacist’s right to refuse to fill prescriptionS on “moral” grounds.

Wal-Mart has already laid down its own law. America’s largest retailer and one of its largest pharmacies doesn’t stock emergency contraception at all.

Emergency contraception, known as Plan B, is 89 percent effective in preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of intercourse, according to its manufacturer, the Women’s Capital Corporation, which last year was acquired by Barr Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Woodcliff Lake, N.J. It is even more effective if taken within 24 hours of unprotected intercourse.

“For many rural women, Wal-Mart is their only pharmacy,” says Ted Miller, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice America. “That’s what makes Wal-Mart’s refusal to carry emergency contraception so disconcerting.”

While some large chain pharmacies, such as Rite-Aid and Winn-Dixie, allow individual pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., is the only one to bar Plan B. Wal-Mart refers every customer seeking emergency contraception to another pharmacy.

But as the retailing behemoth pushes into urban and coastal markets–retail analysts say it has virtually saturated rural and small-town America–its position on Plan B may become increasingly awkward as pro-choice groups continue to protest stores that hinder access to emergency contraception.

Political battles over proposed Wal-Mart stores in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago have demonstrated that what’s acceptable in Arkansas isn’t necessarily embraced everywhere. While the objections focused on the retailer’s low wages, hostility to unions and damage to small businesses, the discount giant’s antagonists also pointed to its stance on Plan B as an issue.

“The company’s indifference to their workers is increasingly well-documented,” says Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch, a Washington, D.C., group. “But this indifference to women’s health adds insult to injury.”

Eager to Expand

Wal-Mart officials say they are eager to expand far beyond Wal-Mart’s traditional rural base and they are not backing down from these fights.

Pro-choice groups, meanwhile, are pressing the Plan B-access issue.

Washington, D.C.-based NARAL and Planned Parenthood Federation of America are targeting Wal-Mart and other major pharmacy chains that aren’t doing enough to ensure Plan B access.

Planned Parenthood is conducting a “Fill My Pills” letter writing and picketing campaign designed to pressure companies and spread the word about their policies.

In June NARAL celebrated the 40th anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut–the Supreme Court decision that barred states from making contraconception illegal–picketed stores in 45 states and those protests will be ongoing, says NARAL’s Miller.

Lawmakers have also entered the fray. This spring, responding to Wal-Mart’s refusal, as well as that of individual pharmacists, congressional representatives Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act, requiring pharmacies to fill prescriptions for all forms of legal birth control, including emergency contraception.

Some pharmacists–as well as a small but influential pressure group called Pharmacists for Life–object to Plan B on moral grounds, saying that it is an abortifacient, or pill that terminates a pregnancy. The drug’s manufacturer says Plan B prevents implantation and, in some cases, ovulation and that it cannot end a pregnancy.

Cultural Tightrope

The Plan B controversy comes at a time when 44-year-old Wal-Mart which has topped the Fortune 500, the definitive list of the world’s largest companies, four years in a row, is trying to walk a wobbly cultural tightrope.

The company’s success has been achieved in rural areas by appealing to low-income, often very religious customers. This base has made it an easy target for far-right pressure groups, with Wal-Mart often giving in to their demands.

Raunchy men’s magazines such as Maxim, for instance, were banished from Wal-Mart’s racks after years of pressure from groups like the Family Research Council, based in Washington, D.C., and the Timothy Group, an organization of evangelical mutual fund investors based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In many other ways, Wal-Mart lets evangelical Christians know this is a store for them. One example: When the latest installment in Tim LaHaye’s apocalyptic “Left Behind” series was published, the retailer gave away the first chapter for free.

Top-selling books that you won’t find in Wal-Mart stores include “America: The Book,” by The Daily Show cast which Wal-Mart dropped because of a graphic rendering of naked Supreme Court justices and George Carlin’s “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”

Urban, Coastal Territory

But to expand into urban and coastal areas, Wal-Mart seems to know that it should avoid being seen as simply a store for the religious right.

The company’s policy on sexually explicit women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan reflects that effort. Managers appeased right-wing pressure groups, as well as people who enjoy the magazines, by inventing a new kind of rack, which covers up the offending cover headlines, while revealing the name of the magazine to potential readers. Some books forbidden in the stores–Carlin’s, for example–are sold on the company’s Web site.

Wal-Mart’s official statement about its decision not to sell Plan B says it is not a moral stance but simply a business decision, a reflection of customer demand. Wal-Mart spokespeople reiterate this message every time they are asked about emergency contraception.

By framing its refusal to sell Plan B as a purely economic, Wal-Mart may avoid the appearance of being influenced by religious extremists at the expense of its other customers.

But some Plan B advocates think that as the company probes new territory its policy on emergency contraception could give in to new market pressures.

“Perhaps as Wal-Mart attempts to reach out to new consumers,” says Tracy Sefl of Wal-Mart Watch, “they will reconsider this ‘business decision’ of actually denying consumers a safe and legal means to prevent unintended pregnancies.”

Liza Featherstone is author of “Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-mart,” published by Basic Books in late 2004.

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