A small group of students at Albion College protested outside the Student Health Services Building on the college’s campus last week. The reason for the unrest was the Albion Health Service’s refusal to prescribe emergency contraception, commonly known as the morning-after pill. Students, with growing frustration, have announced plans to continue their protest. The medical director at Albion, Martin Holmes, has cited moral reasons for choosing not to distribute the pill on campus, and the dean of Albion issued a statement in support of the doctor’s right to make this critical decision. Holmes deserves a physican’s right of self discretion, but because of the time-dependency of emergency contraception, if he is not willing to prescribe it, Albion should find an medical director who will.
Emergency contraception is an intense dosage of progesterone, estrogen or both — the hormones present in birth control pills. If the morning-after pill is used within 72 hours of unprotected sex, the pill can thwart pregnancy by making a woman’s uterus inhospitable to a fertilized egg. The nature of the contraceptive makes the morning-after pill time-dependent; if used too late, the pill will not work.
Because the pill can block pregnancy even after fertilization, Holmes views use of the morning-after pill as abortion, which he morally opposes. He has the right to this opinion, and as a physician, has the right not to prescribe the morning-after pill. However, in his position, a medical director on a college campus, his decisions greatly affect students’ access to the emergency contraceptive, thus hindering the ability of students to exercise a personal right.
Students at Albion have cited various reasons, besides the right to personal choice, for protesting the medical director’s decision. Most important among these is time — the morning-after pill becomes less effective as time elapses and must be used within hours of unprotected sex. If the possibility of pregnancy exists, students need immediate access to the contraceptive. In the event that a medical service is not offered on campus, transportation to off-campus sites, which many students lack, is a primary concern for students, especially with the impending time constraints.
Secondly, students highlight privacy as a primary component of the debate. Simply walking across campus to the student health services building at the desired time is less conspicuous than explaining an absence in class or a reason for leaving campus to obtain the pill.
Lastly, students believe that medical coverage on campus, which is paid for through student fees, should include provisions for the morning-after pill. The college should be providing this service for all its students.
Albion College does provide students with explicit directions on how to acquire emergency contraception. On the health services website, a link entitled “emergency contraception” leads students to places where the pill is available, directions, hour of operation and other specifics. However, in this situation, emergency contraception is an immediacy issue.
When it comes to emergency contraception Albion’s rights as a private institution and the medical director’s personal convictions take the back seat to effective health care. If Holmes will not make the pill available to students, Albion is obligated to replace him with someone who will.