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Have Pro-Choicers Aborted Ship?

By Paul R. Katz

If you’re a pharmacist on a power trip, might I recommend that you consider working at Rite Aid?

As a Rite Aid pharmacist––Walgreens will also do if Rite Aid isn’t hiring at the moment––you will be charged with all the traditional responsibilities of your profession: filling prescriptions, checking for drug interactions, dispensing valuable medical advice. In addition to these duties, however, you’ll have an exciting and powerful new role to play: professional moralizer.

Each time a woman comes to you to fill her doctor’s prescription for emergency contraception (EC)––Preven, also called “Plan B” and the “morning after pill”––you will have the prerogative to refuse to fill her prescription on moral grounds. If you plan on working for Rite Aid or Walgreens, you had better know how you personally feel about EC, or you won’t be able to decide what is morally right for your female patients.

If this decision is too difficult for you to make, consider working for Wal-Mart. The world’s quintessential conglomerate has already relieved you of the burden by refusing to stock EC at all. Their decision not to carry Preven was ostensibly a financial one––EC isn’t profitable enough, Wal-Mart supposes––but invites suspicions of a not-so-hidden agenda: to keep EC out of the hands of women, despite their doctors’ wishes.

Wal-Mart’s decision––along with the policies of Rite Aid and Walgreens––is frightening, not least because of its practical implications. Wal-Mart runs 2,428 pharmacies across the country, and theirs is the only pharmacy within a reasonable distance of many rural communities. If Wal-Mart will not fill a prescription for EC, it may be impossible for a woman to fill her prescription quickly enough.

The refusal of the nation’s largest retailer to carry a perfectly safe means to prevent a pregnancy builds nicely upon the current national mood. One need only glance at the news to find ample evidence of America’s slide to the right on reproductive issues. The Food and Drug Administration’s refusal to approve EC for over-the-counter sale in the face of scientific consensus, the Democratic Party’s endorsement of pro-life candidate Robert Casey Jr. to oppose Rick Santorum, R-Penn., President Bush’s appointment of strongly anti-abortion Samuel Alito to replace the moderate Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court: all should send a powerful message to the pro-choice community. Both at Harvard and nationally, those who believe in a woman’s right to choose must take action.

Unfortunately, the pro-choice community at Harvard has much in common with the larger national one; neither seems to be able to frame the reproductive rights debate favorably. According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted this past July, 70 percent of Americans believe that abortion is either sometimes or always morally wrong, yet, as a July 2005 CBS News poll reported, a full 60 percent of Americans believe that the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade was a “good thing.” Many Americans, then, are uncomfortable with abortion on a moral level, but believe it must continue to be safe and legal.

The pro-choice community needs to play upon the discomfort most Americans feel with abortion. They must not write off what are most certainly valid moral qualms but should instead seize upon the controversy surrounding EC to make the pro-choice lobby into something as widely inclusive as its label.

“Pro-choice” and “pro-abortion” are not equivalent adjectives, as the issue of EC makes abundantly clear. Taking the morning after pill averts a pregnancy; it precludes the need to terminate a human fetus. The exact moment at which life begins may be hard to pinpoint, but except for those who believe that life begins at conception––those who will never identify themselves as pro-choice––it is hard to call a blastosphere of sixteen cells a human life.

Pro-choice advocates can reframe the debate over abortion by arguing as Bill Clinton has that abortion ought to be “safe, legal, and rare.” EC, along with safe-sex education, is a powerful means to this last end, enabling the pro-choice community to prove in concrete terms that its members believe, along with most of America, that abortion should be employed only a last resort, albeit a perfectly legal one.

Support for EC will enable the pro-life community to assume a position that can’t be defeated by images of bloody third-trimester fetuses thrust into the faces of Americans. So it is upsetting that the pro-choice community hasn’t made such argumentation more central to its reasoning, and more publicly prominent, especially at Harvard.

In fact, Harvard hardly seems to have a pro-choice lobby at all. While the official student group Students for Choice claims to “promote greater awareness and understanding of [reproductive] issues in the Harvard community by means such as publications, meetings, seminars, and debates,” it would appear only to exist on facebook.com. No students have stepped forward to organize a response to Harvard Right to Life’s recent poster campaign or the graphic anti-abortion pamphlets that bombarded many student mailboxes earlier this fall. And no student groups promoted or even drew attention to a recent Planned Parenthood rally at the Wal-Mart in Quincy, Mass., which protested the company’s imprudent “business” decision.

At a moment so unfavorable to a plainly pro-abortion message, it is critical that pro-choice groups at Harvard and across the country refocus the reproductive rights debate on EC, using the broadly appealing and morally sound language of Clinton to build a bigger tent, with room for millions more Americans than the one under which such groups are currently huddled.

After all, if pro-choice activists don’t build a bigger tent, millions of Americans might find their own moral tent at Wal-Mart instead.

Paul R. Katz ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Hurlbut Hall.

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