Pharmacists' Right To Refuse to Dispense Abortifacients

Writing in this month's issue of OB/GYN Clinical Alert, Dr. Leon Speroff comments on an article in Pharmacy Times that examined some pharmacists' refusal to prescribe the so-called "emergency contraception" kit Preven.

Speroff points out that the California Pharmacists' Association recently adopted a "conscience clause" allowing a pharmacist to refuse to dispense it "based upon his moral beliefs." He notes that the chief executive of the CPA clarified that pharmacists should not simply state "we don't have it" when it comes to filling EC prescriptions, but recognizes that "this is a delicate issue -- one that is a private issue among the patient, the doctor, and the pharmacist."

The opposition by groups such as Pharmacists for Life, Speroff says, "revolves around the question of when life begins. He notes in March, the American Pharmacy Association voted to establish an official policy that recognizes the right of the individual pharmacist to exercise conscientious refusal, but, at the same time, supported the establishment of systems to ensure patient access to legally prescribed products.

Speroff concludes, "I believe that most of us would agree that pharmacists should have the opportunity to remove themselves from an action they cannot morally support." (Speroff, OB/GYN Clinical Alert, 12/98 issue).

Some pharmacists from around the country have experienced employment problems related to their refusal to approve abortifacients. One pharmacist, Karen Brauer, was fired by a K-Mart pharmacy in Cincinnati and refused employment by a local hospital in southeast Indiana because of her pro-life views. States such as South Dakota have looked at legislation to protect pro-life pharmacists from having to dispense abortifacients.

And in Oregon (May 1999):

Oregon: State House Votes Against Pharmacist Conscience Clause

Source: May 18 '99, Portland Oregonian

SALEM -- The Oregon House voted down a bill Monday aimed at allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for abortifacients and abortifacient contraception.

Pro-abortion critics said the measure would "prohibit women's access to reproductive health care."

House Bill 2010 was sought by the Oregon State Pharmacists Association, which wanted to give its members broader rights to refuse to fill prescriptions for abortifacient contraception and for RU-486, the dangerous abortion drug that may be on the U.S. market by year's end.

The measure also would have reiterated pharmacists' right to refuse to provide drugs used in Oregon's legal assisted-suicide law, which already allows health care providers to refuse to participate in a person's suicide.

The pharmacists' association brought the bill to the legislature after drug store Fred Meyer fired a pharmacist late last year in a dispute about a prescription for Preven, a new emergency contraception drug many see as abortifacient. Fred Meyer and other large pharmacies allow pharmacists to decline to fill some prescriptions, but they are supposed to make sure someone else does. Many pro-life pharmacists do not feel comfortable making referrals for abortifacients.

Several pro-abortion legislators said they objected because the bill didn't ensure that pharmacists who declined to fill a prescription would actively work to find another pharmacist who would.

But Rep. Bill Witt, R-Cedar Mill, said it could be a mortal sin for a member of the Catholic Church to even assist a patient in finding a pharmacist to fill a prescription for a drug that caused an abortion.

The measure also ran into trouble because some critics said the wording was ambiguous enough to allow pharmacists to refuse to fill any prescription on moral grounds. Tom Holt, a pharmacists' association lobbyist, said that was not the legislation's intent.

Gayle Atteberry of Oregon Right to Life said that by voting down the bill, the House was saying "not only is it legal (to use these drugs), but people who morally object to it may be forced to. . . . That is not what America is about."

She scoffed at the idea that some women may not have access to these drugs elswhere, saying that no one in Oregon "is farther away than 72 hours to a drugstore that would fill this."

Initially, the measure failed on a 33-27 vote. Witt and Rep. Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, then changed to the winning side so they could try to bring the bill back up again, under a frequently used legislative procedure.

Holt said he did not know whether proponents would try to revive the bill today, either to send it back to committee for more work or to see whether they could drum up enough votes to get it passed.

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