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Emergency Contraception:

Part 1 of two parts

Wal-Mart's initial refusal to stock
EC -- the "morning-after" Pill

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Overview about Wal-Mart in the U.S.

Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the United States, and its fifth largest provider of pharmaceuticals. All but 22 Wal-Mart stores have pharmacy counters. In many cases, their 3,400 pharmacies 11 have become the only source for prescription medication in their region. Small, independently owned competing pharmacies have difficulty surviving and are often driven out of business. Thus, Americans in rural areas of the country frequently have to choose between buying their medication at Wal-Mart or of driving a long distance to the next urban area where there is a non-Wal-Mart pharmacy.

According to an article in Christianity Today -- America's leading Evangelical Christian magazine --:

" 'Is Wal-Mart a Christian company? No,' said former Wal-Mart executive Don Soderquist at a recent prayer breakfast. 'But the basis of our decisions was the values of Scripture'." 2

By the term "values of Scripture" it is unclear whether they mean values as interpreted by conservative Protestant theologians, or by religious liberals. They are often diametrically opposed. Christianity Today continues:

"Indeed, based in the Bible Belt town of Bentonville, Arkansas, Wal-Mart has a tradition of tailoring its service to churchgoing customers. It sells only the sanitized versions of hip-hop CDs bearing warnings of objectionable content. Responding to a campaign by the largest evangelical mutual fund group, The Timothy Plan, to keep Cosmopolitan magazine covers out of view of Wal-Mart customers, the company slapped plastic sheathes over suggestive women's periodicals and banned 'lad mags' such as Maxim." 2

The company decided in mid 1999-APR that they would no longer sell Preven, a package of emergency contraceptive pills that is often called "the morning after pill" or "emergency contraceptive." (EC) 3Their policy is to refer women to other pharmacies. They stated:

"At this time Wal-Mart has made the business decision not to sell Preven. However, in the interest of serving and meeting the needs of our customers, our pharmacists will refer any request for this product to a pharmacy that does carry it." 4

The drug remains available at K-Mart, Rite Aid, Walgreens and other pharmacies in large chains.

This medication is taken by women who have had unprotected sex, in order to prevent pregnancy. Some sources stated that Wal-Mart did not give a reason for its refusal to sell the pills. One source stated that Wal-Mart had announced on 1999-APR-14 that the decision was not related to ethical concerns. They had simply concluded that the medication might not sell enough to make it economically worthwhile. 5 However, Wal-Mart continues to fill prescriptions for regular birth control pills, even some of these pills and emergency contraception pills are identical, except for dosage.

According to Planned Parenthood:

"In a compromise reached a few months later, Wal-Mart instructed its pharmacists to fill prescriptions for birth control pills as ECPs or to refer customers to another store if they have an objection about dispensing a drug. Wal-Mart still refuses to sell Preven." (Morrow, 1999).

In 2006-FEB, a Massachusetts board ordered Wal-Mart to stock and dispense EC within the state. This meant that Massachusetts and Illinois were the only two states at that time where state directive required Wal-Mart to stock EC.

On 2006-MAR-03, officials at Wal-Mart's head office announced that they will stock EC in all of its pharmacies starting 2006-MAR-30. 6 Covenant News reported this development under the title: "Wal-Mart to kill babies nationwide." 7 This headline was probably based on the now discredited belief that EC can prevent implantation of the pre-embryo in the wall of the uterus. Medical studies now show that EC only acts as a pure contraceptive by inhibiting ovulation or preventing fertilization.

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Overview about Wal-Mart in Canada: 

The Canadian government approved the sale of Preven on 1999-NOV-5. This was the culmination of a 25 year campaign by pro-choice advocates to have:

"post-intercourse contraception widely available and [thereby] reduce the number of abortions" 8

The "emergency contraception kit" is sold with a home pregnancy test for use before the woman takes the pills. If the woman tests positive, then she is pregnant and the pills would have no effect. Preven was released for sale by the manufacturer on 1999-NOV-10. The 144 stores of Wal-Mart Canada initially did not stock Preven. However, they would order it on request. Since Preven must be taken within 72 hours of intercourse, it would be unlikely for the store to receive the medicaiton on time. Thus, their decision had the same effect as their policy in the U.S. to not sell the pill at all. 

Their decision to back-order Preven on request may be a clever ploy to avoid a serious ethical problem. According to the Toronto Star newspaper, a pharmacists' code  of ethics (presumably formulated by the Canadian Pharmacists Association) 9 requires:

"... those who refuse to sell a drug on moral or religious grounds must refer customers requesting it to a store that does sell it." 10

Wal-Mart might consider itself released from this requirement because:

  • they may take the position that the decision to not stock Preven is a business not a moral or religious decision.

  • they are not refusing to sell Preven; they are merely making it impossible for women to obtain the drug from them in time for it to be useable.

On 2005-APR-20, Health Canada reclassified Plan B to non-prescription status. The Wal-Mart in Kingston ON Canada then stocked Plan B; we assume that the entire Wal-Mart chain in Canada has it available as well.

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How the pills work (as viewed by medical professionals, pro-choice groups, etc.)

Physicians and other medical professionals classify the "morning-after" pill as a contraceptive. This is because it prevents the start of pregnancy. (If it could terminate a pregnancy which was already in progress, then it would have been called an abortificant). Pregnancy is defined as beginning when the fertilized ovum attaches to the wall of the uterus - typically about 12 days after conception.

Emergency contraception was originally believed capable of working in one of three ways:

  • If an ovum has not been recently released from an ovary, the medication will usually prevent it from being released.

  • If an ovum has recently been released, the pill would usually prevent it from being fertilized.

  • If the ovum has already been fertilized, it was originally believed that the pills will "alter the lining of the uterus inhibiting the implantation of the embryo." 11 This has since been shown to be very improbable or impossible.

  • If the ovum has developed to the blastocyst stage and has already attached itself to the uterine wall, the pills will have no effect. The pregnancy had already begun and will continue normally.

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How the pills work (as viewed by some pro-life groups):

All of the major pro-life groups define pregnancy as starting at conception, when the sperm fertilizes the ovum. They also regard this as the instant where life (in the form of an ovum and sperm) becomes a human person. To these groups, any termination of the process after conception has occurred, is considered murder of a little baby -- of a human person at its most vulnerable stage.

They believe that emergency contraception may work in one of three ways, as listed above. However, most reject the findings of research and believe that the pills can act as an abortificant, by causing the uterine wall to reject the blastocyst. They believe that the medication kill the baby at its earliest stage of life.

Some response by pro-life individuals and groups:

  • On the basis of these definitions which are unique to the pro-life movement, the American Life League (A.L.L.) states that a morning-after pill "can act to kill a tiny baby in his or her first few hours of life." 12The medication (which A.L.L. calls "chemicals") "have the potential of killing tiny babies in the womb...Previn, [sic] [is] the abortion-causing 'morning-after' pill." 4

  • Lloyd DuPlantis, president of Pharmacies for Life International (PLI) said: "We concur with Wal-Mart on that decision." 13 PLI, reportedly urges its members to refuse to fill most prescriptions for emergency contraceptives, the birth control pill, contraceptive implants, injections and intrauterine devices. 14

  • In an interview during the TV program "Fox Report" pharmacist Jimmy DeFranco said:

    "These pills are actually an abortion type of situation, and we don't want to get involved in that. We're talking about killing babies or killing fetuses...There is a lot of controversy -- Exactly what is abortion? And we feel at the time the egg is fertilized by the sperm, that is conception."

    He operates an independent pharmacy in the Bronx, and refused to fill prescriptions for Preven. 15

Gene Rigozzo, a New Jersey pharmacist stated:

"Abortions have gone from being a medical procedure to being just a pharmaceutical procedure. I think the issue will actually become more debated and heated as more and more drugs that induce abortion hit the market." 16

Since some pro-life agencies use unique definitions for the terms abortion, pregnancy, and personhood, no resolution appears possible between their position and that of the medical and pro-choice communities.

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This topic continues in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Wal-Mart May Stock 'Emergency' Contraceptives," ConsumerAffairs.com, 2006-FEB-15, at: http://www.consumeraffairs.com/
  2. Jeff Sellers, "Deliver Us from Wal-Mart? Christians are among those sounding the alarm about the ethics of this retail giant. Are the worries justified?," Christianity Today, 2005-MAY.
  3. Religion Today, Current News summary, 1999-MAY-17
  4. Quoted in an article, New York Times, 1999-APR-16.
  5. "Maranatha Daywatch," daily summary of news headlines, 1999-MAY-5
  6. "Wal-Mart decides to carry Plan B pill," Associated Press, 2006-MAR-05, at: http://www.usatoday.com
  7. "Wal-Mart to kill babies nationwide," Covenant News, 2006-MAR-06, at:  http://www.covenantnews.com
  8. "About Wal-Mart in Canada" Republicofdogs2's Weblog, 2005-NOV, at: https://republicofdogs2.wordpress.com/
  9. The Canadian Pharmacists Association has a web site at: http://www.cdnpharm.ca/ 
  10. Tanya Talaga, "Morning-after pill Preven goes on sale in Canada," Toronto Star, 1999-NOV-11, Page A2.
  11. A "Provider Attitudes towards ECPs" survey is at: http://www.path.org/
  12. "Action Alert," American Life League, at: http://www.all.org/
  13. "Preven: Wal-Mart's decision not to dispense product outrages women's groups." See:  http://report.kff.org/ *
  14. "Emergency Contraception: crisis at the pharmacy counter," at: http://report.kff.org/ *
  15. Fox Report, 1999-APR-15, Fox News Channel. See: http://report.kff.org/ *
  16. "Conscience clause: New Jersey pharmacist bill in the works." See: http://report.kff.org/ *

* Cited in Kaiser reproductive health reports.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-JUN-20
Author: B.A. Robinson
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