The wrong prescription at State Affairs
April 13 was a tough day for Rep. Frank "The Fetus" Corte, R-San Antonio, as he tried to sell his HB 16 to an increasingly skeptical House State Affairs Committee a venue not generally hostile toward legislation offered by abortion foes. Yet the chance that the committee will pass Corte's latest abortion-related offering, ostensibly aimed at protecting the right of a pharmacist to object to participating in abortion via their scrip-filling powers appears to be fading fast if not already gone. Corte brought the committee a substitute for his original HB 16, which earned the ire of the reproductive rights crowd shortly after he prefiled it late last year. The wording was murky enough to suggest that the bill would allow pharmacists to refuse to fill regular prescriptions for birth control pills or emergency contraceptive pills, which contain elevated doses of the same hormones in monthly birth control pills. To hear Corte tell it, he was simply amazed that anyone would think that was his intention, so he rewrote the bill to say that pharmacists, pharmacies, and physicians' assistants have the right to object to "directly or indirectly performing or participating in an abortion procedure," and may not be discriminated against based on a decision not to participate. By law, those protections are already afforded to doctors and nurses, Corte said, and he only intends HB 16 as a "clean-up bill," since he "assumed pharmacists had been overlooked."
That explanation didn't fly with Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who challenged Corte's intent for more than an hour (cutting in with a question, Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, apologized for breaking up the "Frank and Jessica Show"). While the language may have changed, Farrar argued, the effect would remain the same: allowing pharmacists to interject their moral or religious judgment into their pill-providing profession. "If [a pharmacist] considers birth control or emergency contraceptive [to be abortive] then they'd be protected under your bill," she said. Corte vociferously disagreed, but danced around suggestions that he amend the bill to specifically exempt birth control and emergency contraceptives from conscientious objection protection. The assumption, of course, was that Corte's protections are necessary for pharmacists asked to fill prescriptions for RU-486, the "day-after" birth control pill. (Although critics call RU-486 an abortifacient, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration disagrees, classifying it as a form of birth control.) Corte appeared happy to have the committee members adopt that assumption, given that he feigned righteous indignation at Farrar's suggestion that he was actually attempting to legislatively define when life begins (one of the Fetus' favorite, yet so far lost, causes). It didn't take long for Sarah Wheat, of the Texas chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League, to shine a light on Corte's maneuver. Under current provisions of the Medical Safety Act of the Health and Safety Code, only licensed doctors are allowed to perform abortions or to fill prescriptions for RU-486, she said. "The confusion [appears to be] that somehow pharmacists are actually involved in medical abortions," she told the committee. RU-486 "is not something you can get a prescription for." "So let me get this straight," interjected Rep. Mike Villareal, D-San Antonio. "Frank says he doesn't want to prevent emergency contraception or birth control, and you're telling me that current statutes say that pharmacists are not allowed to dispense [abortive medicines]. So, why are we here?"
That "raises a good question," Wheat replied. "Since pharmacists aren't involved in abortions, it begs the question why we [have] this bill." HB 16 was left pending.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our April 29, 2005 issue: Due to an editing error in "The Wrong Prescription at State Affairs," it is indirectly implied in the April 22 issue that RU-486 is a kind of emergency contraceptive. RU-486 is an abortifacient, not a contraceptive, as it does not prevent a woman from becoming pregnant. The Chronicle regrets the error.