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Back-Alley vasectomies.

Here's a twist on the insanity of the U.S. health care system: the back-alley vasectomy.

I heard about this practice from a friend who is a labor and delivery nurse at a Catholic hospital. She and her fellow employees cannot get health care coverage for birth control pills or other forms of contraception. So some of their husbands are coming in for under-the-table snipping by sympathetic surgeons.

Apparently, the practice is not just limited to Catholic hospitals (which constitute the nation's largest nonprofit provider of health care). I've heard about health care workers at secular institutions who, ironically, pay huge deductibles and co-pays for health insurance. I've also heard about part time nurses who have scaled back their hours to take care of young children and therefore lost their families' health care benefits. They, too, are resorting to the secret scissors approach.

When job-sharing and part time work mean you lose your benefits, and family planning is increasingly difficult to pull off, women and children suffer--as do the anxious husbands and fathers submitting to secret surgery.

In the absence of a sane, sensible, universal health care system, religious fanaticism and the private market combine to create a very unhealthy environment.

And the atmosphere is getting worse. In at least twenty-three states, The New York Times reports, legislators and governors have proposed laws defining when and if pharmacists should have to fill prescriptions for various forms of contraception.

In Wisconsin, the state pharmacy board recently imposed a $20,000 fine on Neil Noesen, who refused to refill a prescription for birth control pills presented by a university student. Noesen also refused to transfer the young woman's prescription to another pharmacy, effectively blocking her from getting the pills.

Noesen became a national celebrity among abortion opponents. Even after he moved to Minnesota, Wisconsin legislators were rushing to his defense, pushing legislation to "protect" pharmacists who refused to dispense products they felt led to the "planned, calculated destruction of human life." (These are birth control pills we're talking about, remember, not coat hangers.) National groups like Family PAC and the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom embraced Noesen's stand. All the attention may have gone to his head. When his Minnesota employer fired him for refusing to fill birth control prescriptions in that state, he wouldn't leave the building until the police finally dragged him away.

As Prevention magazine points out in an excellent article on the subject, the anti-birth-control wing of the anti-abortion movement has been emerging from obscurity over the last decade. While books and flyers making claims I about the abortifacient properties of the Pill have been circulating at anti-abortion rallies and conservative conventions for years (I first saw anti-Pill propaganda at a Washington, D.C., Promise Keepers rally in 1997), only lately have they burst into the mainstream.

Women like Melissa Kelley, a thirty-five-year-old mother in Allentown, Pennsylvania, are finding, according to the Prevention story, that not only pharmacists but also pro-life gynecologists and family doctors are refusing to let them get their birth control pills. The unproven contention of the anti-Pill folks is that, in addition to suppressing ovulation, the Pill occasionally Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive. prevents implantation of a fertilized egg. Even if true, that doesn't make the Pill an abortifacient in the official view of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which defines pregnancy as beginning with implantation. But for zealous anti-abortion folks, conception is the beginning of life, and taking the Pill or using an IUD is tantamount to murder.

Particularly vehement religious fervor is now focused on the morning-after pill, which prevents pregnancy within the first few days after intercourse--sometimes by flushing out a fertilized egg. Around the country, there are more and more cases of pharmacists refusing to dispense the drug, according to NARAL. Legislation defending those pharmacists is pending at the state and national level. One bill, co-sponsored by John Kerry and Rick Santorum, called the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, would allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense a drug if another pharmacist on duty could step in and fill the offending prescription. You know things have gotten bad when Senate Democrats are crafting compromise legislation with leading anti-abortion Republicans.

The idea that doctors and pharmacists should have a choice about whether to provide certain forms of health care appeals to Americans' individualism. But this is craziness.

Advocates, and even the staid Prevention magazine, endorse political action to push back against the mounting pressure to free health care workers from their professional obligations to their patients in the name of "conscience." Good idea. But that's not enough. Our whole view of health care as a good to be sold to consumers by a patchwork of private interests needs to change.

Remember when President Bush, shortly after taking office, presented a budget that knocked contraceptive coverage out of the federal employees' health care plan? Female lawmakers made hay out of the fact that Congress was quick to approve the same plan's inclusion of coverage for Viagra.

The pressures of the religious right and the pharmaceutical companies have led to an increasingly deformed health care system in our country. We need to look at the health care needs of Americans from a public policy, not a marketplace, perspective.

Witness the enormous pressure brought to bear recently on the FDA by the makers of silicone breast implants. Lobbyists bragged that Inamed and Mentor successfully pressured the FDA panel to set aside its qualms about the safety of these devices with their highly organized campaign. Any neutral observer would say our government should put public health ahead of these private interest campaigns.

Until we do, back-alley vasectomies and other forms of desperation and lunacy will take the place of good health care and common sense.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Political Eye
Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
Previous Article:The scourge of nationalism.
Next Article:Save the library.

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