Can a Pharmacist Refuse To Dispense Birth Control?

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Neil Noesen, a relief pharmacist at the Kmart in Menomonie, Wis., was the only person on duty one day in 2002 when a woman came in to refill her prescription for the contraceptive Loestrin FE. According to a complaint filed by the Wisconsin department of regulation and licensing, Noesen refused because of his religious opposition to birth control. He also declined to transfer the prescription to a nearby pharmacy and refused once again when the woman returned to the store with police. The prescription was filled several days later by the managing pharmacist. But Noesen was accused of unprofessional conduct and will face an administrative law judge on June 22. Antiabortion groups are urging Wisconsin officials not to punish Noesen. He and his attorney did not comment.

The Wisconsin case and two similar ones in Texas have prompted fears among pro-choice groups that antiabortion forces are taking their fight to the pharmacy counter. The American Pharmacists Association says pharmacists should be allowed to refuse to fill a prescription. If they do, however, it ought to be filled by someone else or transferred to another pharmacy, the group has said. Laws are vague on the subject. But two states, South Dakota and Arkansas, have passed laws that explicitly protect pharmacists who refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions on moral or religious grounds. Similar legislation has been introduced in 13 other states. Karen Brauer, who says she was fired by Kmart in 1996 for refusing to fill a birth-control prescription and is now president of Pharmacists for Life, says such laws are needed. "Pharmacists are being expected to do things that they do not believe they should do," she says. Counters Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood: "The question here is whose conscience counts. This is about a woman's most fundamental right of choosing when to have a child."