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CONTRACEPTION & FAMILY PLANNING | Washington Post Profiles Pharmacies That Do Not Stock Contraceptives Due to 'Conscience'

CONTRACEPTION & FAMILY PLANNING | Washington Post Profiles Pharmacies That Do Not Stock Contraceptives Due to ‘Conscience’
[June 16, 2008]

A "small but growing number" of so-called "pro-life" pharmacies -- which do not stock emergency contraceptives, oral contraceptives or condoms -- have recently opened across the country, "pitting patients' rights against those of health care workers who assert a 'right of conscience' to refuse to provide care or products that they find objectionable," the Washington Post reports.

The group Pharmacists for Life International on its Web site lists seven pharmacies in the U.S. that have pledged to follow "pro-life" guidelines. Karen Bauer, president of the group, said there are many other similar pharmacies nationwide, adding that the facilities allow a "pharmacist who does not wish to be involved in stopping a human life in any way to practice in a way that feels comfortable."

California, New Jersey, Illinois and Washington state recently began requiring pharmacies to fill all prescriptions or help patients fill prescriptions at another pharmacy, and at least 10 other states are considering similar measures. However, some of the regulations exempt pharmacies that do not stock contraceptives, and it is "unclear" how existing laws, regulations and proposed rules would apply to such pharmacies, according to the Post. "These are uncharted waters, since the issue of so-called pro-life pharmacies are so new," Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, said.

Supporters of pro-life pharmacies and some bioethicists say that they are "consistent with national values that accommodate a spectrum of beliefs," while critics say they violate the pharmacist's duty to put patients' needs first, the Post reports. "If you are a health professional, you are bound by professional obligations," Nancy Berlinger -- deputy director of the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank -- said, adding, "You can't say you won't do part of that profession."

Pharmacists at eight pro-life pharmacies contacted by the Post said they would not "actively interfere" with women trying to fill prescriptions elsewhere, but none of them said they post signs about their restrictions or offer to help women get prescriptions filled elsewhere. "If I don't believe something is right, the last thing I want to do is refer to someone else," Michael Koelzer -- owner of Kay Pharmacy in Grand Rapids, Mich. -- said, adding, "It's up to that person to be able to find it." Some critics of the pharmacies worry that women who are seeking contraceptives at such stores could waste time, be humiliated or be entirely unable to procure the medication they are seeking. The refusal to prescribe could be especially problematic in rural areas, some critics said.

"Rape victims could end up in a pharmacy not understanding this pharmacy will not meet their needs," Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center said, adding, "We've seen an alarming development of pharmacists over the last several years refusing to fill prescriptions, and sometimes even taking the prescription from the woman and refusing to give it back to her so she can fill it in another pharmacy." R. Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin bioethicist and lawyer, said that the trend might lead to "whole regions of the country where virtually every pharmacy follows these limiting, discriminatory policies and women are unable to access legal, physician-prescribed medicines" (Stein, Washington Post, 6/16).