Reproductive rights

06.07.134:45 AM ET

What If Beta Blockers Were Treated Like Birth Control?

What if a drug for old men were regulated like a drug for young women? A result just as ridiculous as the laws restricting birth control, writes John Seager.

I recently had a checkup with my cardiologist.  He took my blood pressure, listened to my heart, did all the normal doctory things good doctors do. We discussed the medications I take, and he gave me a refill of my prescription. I took it to the pharmacy and promptly got it filled. Piece of cake.

No part of it was any big deal, and it shouldn’t be. A heart is just a body part like any other, and doctors and pharmacists are part of the team I rely on to keep it healthy.

But what if heart medications were treated like birth control?

First, I’d need to make sure my cardiologist wasn’t one of those “natural heart beat” cardiologists who refuse to prescribe beta blockers. If I accidentally chose the wrong doctor, I could expect to get a lecture criticizing my morals and be refused the medication I’ve been taking for years to stay healthy. “Beta blockers pollute the environment, you know,” he might claim. “You should learn ‘natural’ techniques to regulate your heart rate. Did you know that people who use beta blockers are more likely to get divorced? Beta blockers have done more to destroy the family than any other modern invention.” He might even suggest that I need to talk to my pastor and pray about my continuing reliance on beta blockers.

Let’s say I got lucky and saw a doctor who was willing to renew my beta blocker prescription. Home free, right? Wrong. Because in many states, pharmacists would have the right to refuse to fill beta blocker prescriptions. And in many cases, pharmacies would not even be required to have someone else on staff fill the prescription, or tell heart patients about another pharmacy where they can get their beta blocker.

It sounds ridiculous, because it is ridiculous. People take beta blockers for a whole host of reasons, including to prevent heart attacks and strokes. People take oral contraceptives for a whole host of reasons, including to prevent unwanted or mistimed pregnancies. Any of those reasons are legitimate and frankly are none of the pharmacist’s business.

Why should one drug be treated so much differently than the other? If men were the main consumers of birth control pills, would this be happening? Would our (mostly male) legislatures allow it to happen? Somehow, I doubt it.

Scenarios like this seem to be getting more common. According to Prevention magazine, “In the past decade or so, the ‘hormonal birth control equals abortion’ view has quietly grown roots in the antiabortion underground. It's spread from doctor to doctor, through local newsletters, in books with titles such as Does the Birth Control Pill Cause Abortions? … and through lobbying groups that have encouraged lawmakers in Arkansas, South Dakota, and most recently Mississippi to enact ‘conscience clauses.’”

These refusal clauses also give doctors, pharmacists and other health care workers the right to refuse to provide care they find “morally objectionable.” According to the Guttmacher Institute, health-care providers—including pharmacists—can refuse to provide contraception or contraception services in 13 states.

Technically, these laws could allow pharmacists to refuse to provide beta blockers. But why would anyone do that? Contraception seems to stand alone as a prescription that’s treated not as a medication but as a moral issue.

And now, some people believe that these “conscience” protections should be extended to employers, too, giving them the same right to refuse to provide birth control that “pro-life” pharmacists and other health-care providers in some states enjoy. Where do we stop? What if your employer has a thing against beta blockers? Or allergy medications? Or chemotherapy?

Here’s a crazy thought: Why don’t we treat medicine like medicine, and religion like religion? I went to my cardiologist for him to check my heart, not my soul. And I went to the pharmacy to fill a prescription, not hear a sermon. All patients—women and men—should expect and receive nothing less.


John Seager is president of Population Connection, America’s largest grassroots population organization. The organization’s website is