ANNAPOLIS – After an hour of emotional debate, the Maryland Senate narrowly blocked a measure Tuesday that would have allowed pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception, commonly known as the “morning-after pill,” to women without prescriptions.
“I am absolutely horrified that once again politics has consumed facts and science,” the bill’s sponsor, Senator Sharon M. Grosfeld, D – Montgomery, said after her bill was defeated on a vote of 23-24.
“Failing to pass this legislation is the equivalent of what women had to endure in the days when they had to ask their husbands’ permission to take contraception and when they had to beg the government for their right to vote,” she said.
Opponents were concerned the proposal would encourage teens to become sexually active at a younger age, and that it would make them less likely to either practice abstinence or the proper use of birth control.
“The way many of these teens think is much different than you and I think and that’s the heartburn I have with this bill,” Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, R – Howard said. “Think back to when you were 15 or 16…It’s a license to have sex.”
Proponents and opponents of the bill argued back and forth over the safety of two common formulas of the drug.
Proponents cited a finding by two advisory panels of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that levonorgestrel, also known as “Plan B”, is safe for pharmacists to distribute without a prescription.
Opponents noted, however, that another form of the drug has been linked by the FDA to the deaths of several women, and that the bill did not specify which types would be allowed in Maryland without a prescription.
Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, D – Baltimore County, said that one of the most important reasons for passing the bill was to protect young girls who had been sexually assaulted from having unwanted children, especially in cases of incest.
“[Incest] happens more than any of us would like to think about, and who does that child have to turn to?” Hollinger said. “These are babies having babies. It is dangerous for babies to have babies.”
Sen. Andrew P. Harris, R – Howard and Baltimore Counties, who voted against the bill, had other thoughts about why the bipartisan majority voted against the bill.
“You have a coalition of people who don’t usually vote together coming together to say this goes too far,” Harris said. “We’ve already taken away enough rights from our parents to know what’s going on with our teenagers.”
Grosfeld’s bill would have charged the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to set up a program to train and certify pharmacists to dole out the medication to patients without prescriptions. The program would have been voluntary, and there would have been no penalties for pharmacists who did not get licensed.
The chairman of the DHMH’s Board of Physicians, Dr. Harry C. Knipp, wrote a letter opposing the bill, SB297, because of concerns the Board had that the bill goes against pharmacist licensing protocol outlined by the DHMH.
“The Board is concerned,” Knipp wrote, “that SB297 does not provide quality medical care to the citizens of Maryland.”
Grosfeld maintains that the good aspects of her failed bill far outweighed the bad and that the measure died is because of political anxiety.
“I think that it will most likely take until next year to pass,” Grosfeld said, “when politicians in this chamber won’t be so afraid of misinformation that political opponents may dish out at them before the elections.” Grosfeld proposed an identical bill last year which also failed to pass.