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A Conflict of Conscience–The Culture War Hits the Pharmacy

Should pharmacists be required to dispense so-called “emergency contraceptives” even if it violates their deepest convictions? That is no longer a hypothetical question, as Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich recently issued an executive rule requiring all pharmacies in his state to fill a woman’s prescription for the “morning-after pill.” The governor’s “emergency order” comes with the force of law, and means that pharmacists who refuse to fill these prescriptions can face sanctions and could lose their jobs and professional status.

The battle over pharmacists’ consciences has been building for some time, as abortion rights activists have been focusing their attention on pharmacists and pharmacies that refuse to fill prescriptions for “Plan B,” the most commonly prescribed medication intended to prevent a fertilized egg from being successfully implanted in a woman’s uterus. Taken up to five days after sexual intercourse, the pill effectively causes an early-term abortion, leading to the destruction of a fertilized egg.

Governor Blagojevich issued his emergency regulation after Planned Parenthood activists held a protest in Chicago, charging that pharmacists were violating the rights of women by refusing to dispense the medication. The governor, who was elected with the support of abortion-rights activists, responded with his order that requires pharmacies to fill these prescriptions without question. In the governor’s words: “No delays, no hassles, no lectures.”

Illinois, like most states, offers protections for health-care providers which allow a “right of conscience” for physicians and other medical professionals to refuse to perform abortions or similar procedures. The governor simply decided that pharmacists are not included in the health-care providers covered by the law.

Some pharmacists are refusing to obey the order. Jim Perry of Rock Island, for example, told the Decatur newspaper, The Dispatch, that he would defy the order. “Ordering me to do this would be like ordering all doctors to perform abortions,” he explained. “You just can’t expect pharmacists to do this.”

The governor’s emergency order applies to those pharmacies that sell any form of oral contraception. Susan Hofer, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, warned that a pharmacy’s license could be revoked if it refuses to dispense the “morning-after pill” or similar medications.

Karen Brauer, President of Pharmacists for Life, a pro-life alliance of pharmacists, pointed to the growing national controversy. “I’m getting calls from pharmacists all over the country who say, ‘I didn’t get into this profession to kill babies,’” she said. Brauer charged that the governor’s action is illegal because the state’s health-care conscience law already covers pharmacists. The Illinois Pharmacist Association supports Brauer’s interpretation. “The problem is the governor can’t read,” Brauer chided. “And he is going to get sued over this. And he’s going to be embarrassed, all because he can’t read.”

The language employed in this controversy betrays the dirty little secret that obscures the real medical function of so-called “emergency contraceptives.” For most people, the meaning of the word “conception” is clear–it refers to that moment when the egg is successfully fertilized by the sperm. Not so with many medical professionals. In an intentional and very effective verbal shift, pro-abortionists have successfully redefined “conception” in many medical contexts to refer to the entire process whereby the fertilized egg is successfully implanted in the woman’s womb.

Thus, when abortion advocates talk about “emergency contraceptives,” they do not mean that the pills prevent the union of sperm and egg. What they mean is that the extremely high dosages of oral contraceptives found in “Plan B” or the “morning-after pill” prevent the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall, a process which amounts to a chemical abortion.

For that reason, pharmacists with pro-life convictions–the very people who understand exactly how this pill works–cannot fill these prescriptions without a violation of conscience.

That’s no problem for those pushing the pro-abortion agenda. An April 3, 2005 editorial in The New York Times referred to a right of conscience for pharmacists as “an intolerable abuse of power by pharmacists who have no business forcing their own moral or ethical views onto customers who may not share them.” In the paper’s blunt assessment: “Any pharmacist who cannot dispense medicines lawfully prescribed by a doctor should find another line of work.”

The arrogance of that statement is almost breathtaking. A newspaper that would fight to the death for the freedom of the press is apparently eager to deny similar freedoms to an entire class of medical professionals. In its radical worldview, a woman’s right to exercise her own “reproductive freedom” trumps all other rights and liberties.

That was too much for Dr. Leonard L. Edloe, President and Chief Executive Officer of Edloe’s Professional Pharmacies and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pharmacy at Virginia Commonwealth University. In a letter to the editor published in the April 8, 2005 edition of the Times, Edloe responded with eloquent outrage.

“As a practicing pharmacist for 35 years, I was shocked by your stance that any pharmacist who cannot dispense lawfully prescribed medicines ‘should find another line of work’.” As Dr. Edloe insisted, “I am a professional, and I also have a conscience.”

Clearly, Dr. Edloe takes his professional responsibilities seriously. “When it is my professional opinion that a patient does not need a drug or that the drug might harm the patient, it is my duty to inform the patient of the dangers–and in some instances to refuse to fill the prescription.” But Dr. Edloe also understands a deeper accountability. “I also know that one day I must answer to my creator. I have chosen to practice a profession that improves the quality of life, and I believe that any action I take that causes death will have implications when I am judged for the things I have done on this earth.” Dr. Edloe appeared as a guest on my radio program on April 12, and he protested the fact that so many persons–including those among the media elite–appear so ready to force him to violate his conscience by demanding “emergency contraceptives” after engaging in promiscuous sexual behavior.

The New York Times is not alone in its willingness to sacrifice the rights of pharmacists in its eagerness to defend what it construes as a woman’s unqualified “right” to the morning-after pill. Ellen Goodman, the predictably liberal columnist for The Boston Globe, straightforwardly rejects a right of conscience for pharmacists as she pushes the same old abortion rights rhetoric. She complains about “the incredibly expanding conscience clause” that is now extended to medical professionals in many states. She draws a clear line with regard to pharmacists, arguing that they should have no right of conscience that would allow them to refuse any prescription. “The pharmacist who refuses emergency contraception is not just following his moral code,” she asserts, “he’s trumping the moral beliefs of the doctor and the patient.” So far as Ellen Goodman is concerned, the woman’s conscience is all that matters. “Pharmacists don’t have the same claim to refuse filling the prescription as a doctor has to refuse performing an abortion,” Goodman insisted. She went on to argue that “there are other ways to exercise a private conscience clause.” What would that be? “You can quit,” she suggests. “It happens every day.”

Note carefully that Goodman offered no argument to sustain her claim that pharmacists should have fewer rights than physicians. Her “you can quit” argument is a consummate illustration of the almost infinite condescension that marks the moral attitude of the liberal elite. “The last time I looked,” she concluded, “the pharmacist’s license did not include the license to dispense morality.” Of course, Ellen Goodman is ever-ready to dispense her own form of morality, even as she would deny pharmacists’ right to act according to their own consciences.

This is already a big issue, but it is sure to grow larger in the very near future. Steven H. Aden of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom told The Washington Post, “More and more pharmacists are becoming aware of their right to conscientiously refuse to pass objectionable medications across the counter. We are on the very front edge of a wave that’s going to break not too far down the line.” Each of us has a stake in just how that wave breaks. If pharmacists can be denied a right of conscience, what about other citizens? How long will it be before hospitals will be required to offer abortions, even if this violates moral convictions of sponsoring bodies, including churches? If a right of conscience can be denied to pharmacists, how long will it be before physicians lose the same protection?

The Culture of Death advances by transforming definitions and pushing for the supremacy of a woman’s “right to choose” over the rights of all others. Watch closely. It’s the pharmacists whose rights are on the line today. Who’s next?