WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Rachel Pourchot, a 27-year-old social worker who lives with her longtime boyfriend, left her office near St. Louis for what she thought would be a routine errand to fill prescriptions for contraceptives.
But instead of walking away with both of her prescribed medications, Pourchot wound up inciting a scuffle between Target, the Minneapolis-based retail giant, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the New York-based reproductive rights organization.
That’s because Pourchot left Target with only one medication: a packet of the hormonal contraceptive Ortho Tri-Cyclen. She alleges that a Target pharmacist refused to fill her second prescription, for an emergency contraceptive commonly known as Plan B.
She “said something like, ‘That’s my right. I don’t have to fill it,'” Pourchot recalled in a recent telephone interview. “She was so self-righteous about it. I remember being stunned. I honestly didn’t believe she would say no.”
Target, however, has denied Pourchot’s version of events.
“Regarding the alleged event in St. Louis, we will not go into any details, other than to say that we differ in the portrayals of what happened,” Target spokesperson Lena Michaud told Women’s eNews. “Target maintains that there was no refusal to fill the prescription for Plan B.”
In a November statement, Planned Parenthood’s interim president, Karen Pearl, accused Target of “attempting to cover up a misguided corporate policy that denies women access to contraception.” Pearl will step down as acting president in mid-February, when the group’s new president, Cecile Richards, steps into the position.
The alleged incident in Missouri is the latest in a series of at least 12 refusals that Planned Parenthood has tracked over the past 12 months.
The counter-charges have become part of an escalating struggle over access to emergency birth control.
In Pourchot’s home state, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt announced Thursday he would support legislation allowing pharmacists to refuse prescriptions for emergency contraception, according to recent news reports.
Some women’s rights activists say that whoever’s story is more accurate–that of Target or that of Pourchot–they are troubled that any kind of controversy surrounds a routine trip to the drug store for contraceptives.
“Contraceptive pills have been on the market since the 1960s,” said Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal. “We thought we put this behind us.”
In describing Plan B as a contraceptive pill, Smeal is backed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The Washington, D.C.-based organization defines the onset of pregnancy as the moment a fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus. Plan B, they say, is a contraceptive because it prevents implantation from occurring.
Opponents of abortion rights, however, define pregnancy as the moment an egg and sperm are united and therefore view emergency contraception as an abortion pill.
This debate over emergency contraception has emerged as a new frontier in the ongoing war over women’s reproductive rights.
In addition to pharmacists’ refusals, the Bush administration has presided over expansions of federal funding for abstinence-only sex education programs and a delayed decision by the Rockville, Md.-based Food and Drug Administration over whether to grant emergency contraception over-the-counter status. Meanwhile, Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan has declined to define the administration’s position on birth control, Smeal said.
The White House did not return calls on the subject.
Policy Is to Refuse But Refer
Target’s policy allows its pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for moral and religious reasons. If they take this option, pharmacists are required to ensure that the prescription is filled in a timely and respectful manner by another Target pharmacist or at a different pharmacy.
Target’s Michaud would not amplify about why the company denies that a refusal occurred, even though Pourchot’s account does not suggest the pharmacist broke the store’s stated policy.
The pharmacy department at the Fenton, Mo., store declined to comment on the matter and referred a call for comment to the company’s public relations office.
Hoping to use public pressure to compel Target to change its refuse-and-refer policy, Planned Parenthood supporters held demonstrations outside Target stores around the country on Dec. 17, a key Christmas shopping day. Planned Parenthood is also encouraging consumers to write letters and sign an online petition to get the store to change its policy.
The hope is that Target will join a group of stores–including Eckerd Corporation, Costco, CVS, Fagen’s, Harris Teeter, Kmart, Price Chopper Supermarkets and Super Valu–that, according to Planned Parenthood, have implemented policies to ensure prescriptions of emergency contraception are filled on site and without delay.
Aside from Target, chains that have not implemented policies guaranteeing rapid, onsite filling of emergency contraception prescriptions include Rite Aid, Walgreens, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Winn Dixie Stores, according to Planned Parenthood.
Thirty-four corporations–including Duane Reade, Giant, Piggly Wiggly and Safeway–have not made their policies regarding pharmacist refusals known to Planned Parenthood.
A Friend Told a Friend
Planned Parenthood became aware of the allegation through word of mouth. Pourchot said she told her story to a friend, who told another friend who worked at Planned Parenthood.
Pourchot says she is bewildered by the store’s denial of her story.
She says a medical technician told her she would have to wait a day or two before obtaining Plan B because the store did not have it in stock. Pourchot wanted to have the medication on hand in case her daily medication failed to prevent a pregnancy. If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, Plan B–also known as the “morning-after pill”–is 89 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, according to the medication’s manufacturers.
Pourchot says she then asked if she would have any other problems getting the prescription filled, a question that prompted a nearby pharmacist to inform her that she would not fill the prescription. A medical technician then told Pourhcot she could get the prescription filled at a different drugstore, she said.
She left Target and switched her prescription to Walgreens, where she says a computerized record shows her prescription for Plan B was transferred from Target on Sept. 30.
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.
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