A lawsuit has been making its way through the Washington State judicial system. On the basis that it violates their religious morals and thus infringes on their right to religious freedom two pharmacies sued against a state requirement stating that pharmacies must stock and provide Plan B and other forms of emergency contraception. Judge Leighton, who presided over the hearing, decided that because the State allows for pharmacies to opt out of stocking and providing medications for non-religious reasons (such as increased risk of theft or the medication being temporarily unavailable from suppliers) then the State must also allows for religious exemptions from stocking medications. This would allow for pharmacies/pharmacists to refuse providing emergency contraception to their customers.
On one hand, it’s hard to argue against the judge’s decision. If the state allows for secular reasons to opt out of providing a medication than allowing religious exemptions seems like a must. The problem with the decision is that it seriously impacts the lives of people seeking emergency contraception. Emergency contraception is most effective if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex. In rural areas, if the sole pharmacy opts out of providing emergency contraception people who need it will have a much harder time accessing in the effective time frame. Allowing this to happen puts more people at risk of an unplanned pregnancy.
This decision was released right around the same time that a new study was published in The Journal of Sexual Health showing that misuse is causing a wide range of condom breakage, slippage and leakage. Some of the most common errors the study found were putting the condom on too late, taking it off too early, putting it on/taking it off incorrectly and not lubrication issues. With such widespread misuse, clearly emergency contraception is an important part of preventing an unwanted pregnancy. The purpose of Plan B and other forms of emergency contraception is to be the second line of defense in case of condom failure or other birth control mishaps. Making it harder to access will only increase unintended pregnancy rates.
Even for people who have learned proper condom use it is still important to ensure easy access to emergency contraception. Although we advocate for condom use with all new and non-monogamous partners, even if you are using another form of birth control, it’s important to recognize that accidents happen and Plan B and other forms of emergency contraception must be available to anyone who needs it.