There has been an ongoing struggle this year between pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for EC and birth control pills, and various municipal and state governments who either support or oppose these actions. In April, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich issued an administrative order that allows pharmacies not to sell contraceptives of any kind. But if they do, they are required to fill prescriptions for EC or risk loosing their license. Illinois is the first state to do so. At least 10 pharmacists have sued the state on the grounds that the order forces them to violate their religious beliefs. And the state has moved to revoke the licenses of two Walgreens pharmacies and an Osco pharmacy for refusing to fill the prescriptions.
In Austin, Texas the City Council passed a measure in August requiring Walgreens, the pharmaceutical vendor for the citys medical assistance program, to fill any prescription without discrimination or delay. The measure was specifically aimed at pharmacies that have refused to fill prescriptions for EC. The measure requires the pharmacies to fill prescriptions in the store where patients furnish their prescriptions, regardless of a pharmacists religious beliefs. Austin is the first city in the nation to require pharmacies to fill all orders they receive.
The Arizona legislature has chosen to side with pharmacists who have religious objections to EC. The Arizona House and Senate have introduced legislation that would permit pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for any contraception if they are morally opposed to it. And pharmacists would not be required to assist the patient in filling the prescription elsewhere. Michigans legislature is considering a similar bill. The California Assembly has taken a much wider approach. It is considering legislation that would allow a pharmacist to refuse to fill any prescription for religious reasons. The pharmacist would only have to inform their employer in writing in advance.
Allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill an EC prescription on religious grounds is poor health policy. And it sets a dangerous legal precedent. If a pharmacist can decline to dispense EC there would be little grounds to prevent them from declining to fill other prescriptions owing to their religious beliefs. In fact, this seems likely to occur.
Many Christians believe that homosexuality violates their religious convictions. The Vatican just released a document that characterizes homosexuals as intrinsically disordered and prone to evil tendencies. The highest church court for the Methodist denomination ruled last month that homosexuals could be barred from joining the church. Given the strong convictions of many Christians, what would prevent a pharmacist from refusing to dispense AZT, the drug used to treat AIDS patients, on the grounds that the patient may be a homosexual and this violates their religious beliefs?
This isnt far fetched. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center there are at least 28 white supremacist Christian churches and organizations in 18 states. They are united in their belief that whites are the descendants of the Old Testament Israelites and that people of color, whom they regard as beasts and as Satanic, do not biblically merit equal treatment. Couldnt a pharmacist belonging to one of these churches decline to fill a prescription for BiDil as a result of their religious beliefs?
Pharmacists, of course, have a right to their personal religious beliefs. But they shouldnt be allowed to act on them in their capacity as healthcare professionals. While the slippery slope argument is often overused in moral and legal arguments, in this case its entirely appropriate. Granting pharmacists the legal right to decline one medication opens the door to decline any drug due to religious convictions.