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Pharmacists' moral beliefs vs. women's legal rights

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2004



When pharmacist Neil Noesen refused to fill a customer's prescription for birth-control pills at a Kmart in Menomonie, Wis., he did so on the basis of his religious beliefs. But when he also refused to transfer the woman's prescription to another pharmacy, she went to the police.

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Next week, on May 4, Mr. Noesen will appear before a court commissioner in Madison, Wis., to face a disciplinary hearing on charges of unprofessional conduct. The Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing could fine him or revoke his license.

Noesen's case mirrors two incidents in Texas that are pitting a woman's legal right to contraceptives against a pharmacist's right to follow his or her conscience. In Denton, Texas, a pharmacist at an Eckerd pharmacy lost his job in January after turning away a rape victim who wanted to fill a prescription for a morning-after contraceptive. And in suburban Dallas last month, a CVS pharmacist refused to fill a prescription for birth-control pills for a married mother of two. CVS says it is "addressing the situation" with the pharmacist.

Referring to cases like these, Lisa Boyce, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, says, "It's certainly not an epidemic, but it's noteworthy." She and other activists express concern that women's access to birth control could be threatened by such refusals.

"No woman should have to shop around until she finds a pharmacist who will dispense her doctor- prescribed birth-control prescription," she says.

Noesen's attorney, Krystal Williams-Oby of Madison, explains his actions on July 6, 2002, when a university student handed him her prescription. "My client was not judging the patient," she says. "He was judging his own heart. He sincerely believes he would be committing an act of sin to dispense [birth control], and to call someone else to dispense it." She sees this as a religious liberty issue.

The American Pharmacists Association maintains a two-part policy. "The pharmacist has the right to conscience, and the patient has the right to legally prescribed medication," says spokesman Michael Stewart. A pharmacist who objects to dispensing a particular medication must tell an employer. If one pharmacist refuses to fill a prescription on grounds of conscience, another pharmacist must do it. Some customers may be referred to another pharmacy. Other prescriptions may be delivered by mail.

"In the great majority of cases, the pharmacist's right to conscience is exercised appropriately and seamlessly, so the patient is not even aware that the pharmacist has exercised that right," Mr. Stewart says. "A pharmacist can say, 'Let me get Bob for you, ma'am,' and that's the end of that."

Two states - South Dakota and Arkansas - already have laws protecting pharmacists who refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions on moral or religious grounds. Ten other states, including Wisconsin, are considering such legislation - Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, believes that states without protection for pharmacists will eventually face a pharmacists' shortage. She was fired by Kmart in 1999 for refusing to fill a contraceptive prescription.

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