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Protection of Conscience Project

Service, not Servitude

Plan to Ensure Pill Access Worrying Pro-Life Pharmacists

Pro-life pharmacists have a new challenge ahead of them, as new FDA rules require pharmacists to sell Plan B over the counter.

National Catholic Register, 17-23 September, 2006
Reproduced with permission

Elenor K. Schoen
Register Correspondent

Robert Muise, an attorney with Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. . . .argues that where a need for accessibility tries to trump conscience, it has little to do with access and everything to do with forcing an agenda on people of faith.

POWELL, OHIO - The Food and Drug Administration's Aug. 24 announcement that it will allow over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive Plan B was another blow to pro-life pharmacists.

The FDA decision means that by year's end, women can purchase the drug directly without a prescription as long as they can prove to a pharmacist they are 18 years of age or older. Younger teens still need prescriptions.

That presents a dilemma for pharmacists of conscience, said Karen Brauer, president of Ohio-based Pharmacists for Life International. She said that Plan B "is not an extremely effective means of birth control" but is mainly effective in "killing the early human embryo prior to implantation."

Even Barr Pharmaceuticals, the New Jersey-based company that manufactures the drug, admitted that Plan B can be an abortifacient.

"Plan B may also work by preventing (the newly fertilized egg, or embryo) from attaching to the uterus (womb)," it says on its website ("

Brauer noted that refusing to dispense Plan B "can cause a pharmacist to be fired." She pointed out that "dispensing the 'morning-after' pill is under government coercion inIllinois, and the New York Civil Liberties Union is seeking punishment for pharmacists whose clinical judgment was that emergency treatment with large doses of hormones should not have refills."

Nine states - Washington, California, New Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont - already allow women of any age to buy Plan B without a doctor's prescription from certain pharmacies. Jodie Wagner, a pharmacist working inSpokane, Wash., left retail pharmaceuticals to work in a clinical setting.

"The fear is not so much in losing one's job but in losing one's license to practice," she said.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire has been actively involved in applying pressure to the state's pharmacy board to reject the Washington State Pharmacy Association's draft of a conscience clause. She has made it clear that she objects to patients being denied drugs on the basis of pharmacists' "personal objections or biases."

Oregon's Board of Pharmacy has faced a similar dispute on the issue of conscience vs. accessibility. A new policy approved in June requires a pharmacist who refuses to fill prescriptions to assist a patient in finding a pharmacist who will dispense the drug, even if that assistance violates his conscience. Refusing to do so will leave an accusation of "unprofessional behavior" on the pharmacist's record.

Oregon's pharmacy board declared that "Oregon pharmacists cannot interfere with a patient's lawfully and appropriately prescribed drug therapy."

Although federal and state constitutions protect a right of conscience for all citizens, it has become increasingly apparent that such protections are being ignored.

Robert Muise, an attorney with Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., said his organization is working on a number of such cases. He said that "this is one of the most important areas in the law presently.

"We are trying to breathe life back into the Free Exercise Clause" of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, protecting religious belief, he stated.

Cases have arisen concerning everything from Boy Scout troops penalized for restricting membership, to Catholic agencies refusing adoption services to homosexual couples, to health care providers not wishing to perform abortions or physician-assisted suicides. The list of cases keeps growing.

Muise argues that where a need for accessibility tries to trump conscience, it has little to do with access and everything to do with forcing an agenda on people of faith.

So what can the pharmacists do? Kirsten Waggoner, an attorney specializing in such issues with the law firm Ellis, Li & McKinstry in Seattle, suggests that in the case of the Washington Association of Pharmacists, there is still time to act. The final vote won't come until January 2007. "So, they need to stand up and be firm" in demanding a conscience clause, she urged.

Support for pharmacists' rights of conscience in Washington generated more than 14,000 letters to the pharmacy board, with help from parishes and the bishops.

There are also legal and legislative actions that can help keep the issue of a neglected right of conscience before the public, Muise said.

Pharmacists for Life will help in finding legal assistance for pharmacists facing disciplinary actions. Brauer stated that "pharmacists need to be able to afford to use civil law protections. But this is expensive and out of reach of most unemployed health professionals, though a number of agencies are offering help."

Brauer insisted that all is not hopeless.

She stated, "The lawsuits in Illinois are proceeding in a positive direction, with the pharmacists' right to a hearing being affirmed by the U.S.district court judge inSpringfield."



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