Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Religious right furious at Bush over Plan B

President Bush's position on emergency contraception has provoked varied, yet uniformly angry responses from religious conservatives. Across the board, they are feeling the sting of his latest slap.

Near the end of his press conference on Monday, Bush engaged in the following exchange:

Q Thank you very much. Mr. President, some pro-life groups are worried that your choice of FDA Commissioner will approve over the counter sales of Plan B, a pill that, they say, essentially can cause early-term abortions. Do you stand by this choice, and how do you feel about Plan B in general?

THE PRESIDENT: I believe that Plan B ought to be -- ought to require a prescription for minors, is what I believe. And I support Andy's decision.
At the time, I wrote that this was an odd response from someone who ostensibly shares the pro-lifer view that emergency contraception causes abortions. The question itself alluded to this, but Bush sidestepped what has been for religious conservatives the primary objection to EC.

Logic dictates that if EC causes abortions, and abortion is murder, then the use of EC is murder. If this is what you believe, it makes no more sense to negotiate the terms of use for EC than it makes to negotiate the terms of any other "murderous" act such as, for example, embryonic stem-cell research.

I speculated yesterday that Bush's objectively pro-Plan B response would not be received kindly by religious conservatives.

I was right, but not entirely in the way I expected.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, writes to his supporters:

Today President Bush threw his support behind Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach's plan to approve Plan B for over-the-counter (OTC) sale to women 18 and older, while keeping it prescription (Rx) for teen girls. The FDA lacks the legal authority to approve "dual status" marketing of the same dosage of a drug, and they lack the authority to enforce an age-restriction. How will the FDA ensure that Barr Laboratories confines OTC sale of Plan B to women 18 and older? Indeed, the CEO of Barr has already told the press that it can't be held responsible for pharmacists who do sell Plan B to younger teens.

Of equal concern is the effect this decision may have on our health care system since it will encourage other drug companies to follow suit. The decision sets a precedent for replacing doctors with pharmacists and others in the medical decision-making process. The regulatory issue here goes well beyond Plan B, and touches on what role doctors will continue to have in our health care system. Doctors, not pharmacists, are equipped to oversee the use of drugs such as Plan B.

Last fall, at the same time Family Research Council wrote the FDA on the same topic, The Association of American Physicians & Surgeons (AAPS) also wrote the FDA, "The FDA should not render a decision affecting millions of Americans without allowing full notice and comment by physicians and patients, pursuant to a formal rulemaking proceeding." They further argue that: "In sum, AAPS objects to any assertion of authority by the FDA to make age-based classifications for prescription and OTC sales of drugs." But that is precisely the disastrous path Dr. von Eschenbach, and now the President, are taking us down.
Now, first of all, it is laughable that Perkins claims to oppose "replacing doctors with pharmacists and others in the medical decision-making process." I don't recall him expressing any outrage over pharmacists who cite their religious beliefs when refusing to fill doctor-prescribed orders for Plan B. Religious conservatives insist that requiring pharmacists to fill the prescriptions against their will amounts to nothing less than religious persecution. When he likes the result, Perkins fully endorses the right of a pharmacist to interfere in the relationship between a patient and her doctor.

In fact, in expressing support for the Workplace Religious Freedom Act of 2005, the FRC cited the cases of a California nurse and an Ohio pharmacist who were fired for refusing to dispense morning-after pills and regular birth-control pills, respectively.

  • In 1999, California nurse Michelle Diaz was fired from the Riverside Neighborhood Health Center for refusing to distribute the "morning-after" pill based on her belief that dispensing the medication would be assisting with an abortion, a violation of her religious beliefs.

  • In 1996, Kmart fired Karen Brauer, an Ohio pharmacist, for refusing to dispense Micronor, a birth-control pill. K-mart did so even though Ms. Brauer had informed them when she was hired in 1989 that, based on her religious beliefs, she would not do so.
It is hypocritical on its face for Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council to claim now that the doctor-patient relationship is sacred when it comes to contraception, and this position fails as the foundation for any case against over-the-counter distribution of Plan B. Frankly, it's even weaker than the "murder" argument, if that were possible.

Other prominent religious conservatives, however, are embracing the "murder" line with both arms.

The American Life League wails:

"What happened to President Bush's campaign promises of respecting the dignity of every human person and creating a culture of life?" asked Judie Brown, president of American Life League. "Based on his apparent willingness to see the Food and Drug Administration authorize the potentially lethal Plan B drug regimen for women over 18, the president is apparently doing anything but protecting innocent human life. It is unfortunate and sad that politics have once again trumped the innocent babies."
And, Catholic World News reports:

Father Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International, shot off a press release saying that the President's "implied support for the abortion-causing drug Plan B is completely inconsistent with his recent veto of the embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) funding bill."

"What the President apparently fails to realize," Father Euteneuer continued, "is that Plan B kills the same innocent unborn children that the ESCR process does."

Father Euteneuer said that the President's statement "risks provoking a great divorce" between the White House and the pro-life Catholics who have supported him.
So, the religious right learns, yet again, that George W. Bush is not really one of them. They have been learning and forgetting and re-learning this lesson every year that he has been in office. You'd think they would have gotten a clue by now.

With all due respect to Ms. Brown of the American Life League, what happened to the "culture of life" is that it was never anything more than a cheap campaign slogan. It possessed no more meaning than "compassionate conservatism" or "war on terror." George W. Bush has played religious conservatives for fools over and over and over again. Yesterday's unguarded remarks about Plan B were just the the latest expression of his contempt.