The battle over reproductive rights in the United States has taken another turn with some pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control and morning-after pills on the grounds that dispensing the medications violates their moral or religious beliefs.
This has provoked an intense debate over the rights of pharmacists to refuse to participate in something they consider repugnant, versus a woman's right to get medications her doctor has prescribed.The action has triggered pitched political battles in state legislatures across the nation as politicians try to pass laws either to protect pharmacists from being penalised, or force them to carry out their duties.
Steven Aden, of the Christian Legal Society's Centre for Law and Religious Freedom in Virginia, which defends pharmacists says the issue is big and is just beginning to surface as more and more pharmacists are becoming aware of their right to conscientiously refuse to pass objectionable medications across the counter.
As the number of clashes grows many pharmacists often risk dismissal in standing up for their beliefs. Adam Sonfield, of the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, which tracks reproductive issues, says there are pharmacists who will only give birth control pills to a woman if she's married and there are pharmacists who mistakenly believe contraception is a form of abortion and refuse to prescribe it to anyone. Doctors are frequently being called late at night, by teenage girls and women who are desperate after being turned away by pharmacists and there are cases of pharmacists holding prescriptions hostage, where they refuse to transfer them to another pharmacy when time is of the essence.
Kathleen Pulz and her husband panicked when the condom they were using broke and the pharmacy near their home in Milwaukee refused to fill an emergency prescription for the morning-after pill. Mrs Pulz, 43, and her husband could not afford a fifth child and felt outraged the pharmacists felt that they had a right to make that decision. They were both saddened and frightened by the action. The trend is seen by supporters of pharmacists' rights as a welcome expression of personal belief. It is seen by women's groups as a major threat to reproductive rights and yet another manifestations of the insidious growth of the religious right's growing political reach. Rachel Laser of the National Women's Law Centre says it is another indication of the current political atmosphere and climate and is outrageous, sexually discriminating and prevents access to a basic form of health care for women.
If the US Food and Drug Administration approves the sale of the Plan B morning-after pill without a prescription the issue could intensify as that would make pharmacists the primary gatekeeper. The trend of health care workers refusing to provide certain services first became apparent among doctors, nurses and other health care workers over the abortion issue and spread to pharmacists with the approval of the morning-after pill.
Karen Brauer, who was dismissed from a pharmacy in Ohio for refusing to dispense birth control prescriptions says use of medication to stop human life violates the ideal of the Hippocratic oath that medical practitioners should do no harm.
The American Pharmacists Association recently reaffirmed its policy that pharmacists can refuse to fill prescriptions as long as they make sure customers can get their medications some other way.