A battle for the soul of pharmacy has begun. Abortion-rights supporters claim that over the last six months, an average of one pharmacist per day has refused to fill a prescription—usually for contraceptives or abortifacients—for reasons of religion or conscience.

In response, the words of some who support a woman's "right to choose" are getting nasty. Or maybe just silly.

• "If state-licensed health-care workers can impose their religious views on Americans who do not share them, what is the difference between the United States and the Iranian theocracy?" asks Bonnie Erbe of Scripps Howard News Service. "Even differences between us and the Taliban begin to wear tenuously thin."

• Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, dismissing claims that pharmacists are covered under the state's Health Care Right of Conscience law, issued an emergency regulation in April requiring pharmacies to fill such prescriptions, snapping, "No delays. No hassles. No lectures." Penalties for noncompliance in Illinois range from a fine to revocation of a pharmacy's right to dispense drugs.

Keep in mind that the 217,000 pharmacists in the United States (more than half of them women) do more than simply fill prescriptions. Extensively trained, pharmacists are true medical professionals who offer customers valuable insights on dosages, disease, and drug interactions.

Yet some would turn these professionals into mere dispensers of medication through the innocuously named Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act. The bill would require the pharmacist, regardless of conscience, to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception. Francis Manion of the American Center for Law and Justice says the legislation, in effect, treats the right to contraception as more fundamental than freedom of religion.

However, other legislators are seeking a common-sense middle ground. Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rick Santorum, R-Penn., have introduced the Workplace Religious Freedom Act. This bipartisan bill, supported by 45 religious and civil-rights groups, would allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense certain drugs as long as another pharmacist who would is available.

"Conscience clauses" are nothing new to medicine. Since 1973, when Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, 47 states have carved out exemptions for physicians who have moral qualms about abortion. The American Medical Association allows physicians, hospitals, and hospital staff to opt out of any act that violates "personally held moral principles." In fact, in 10 states, health-care professionals may refuse to provide contraceptives. Responding to the growing controversy, other state legislatures are debating the issue.

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The American Pharmacists Association, as a matter of policy, already permits pharmacists to decline to fill prescriptions if they provide some other avenue for patients to get their prescriptions.

Christian pharmacists have suddenly found themselves in an ethical minefield. Some may face the stark prospect of disregarding their consciences—or losing their jobs. Besides supporting good legislation, congregations might highlight the positive roles and growing ethical challenges of health-care workers in their midst. Pastors, missionaries, and the sick aren't the only people who need prayer from the pulpit. Why not find an occasion to talk about these issues and to lay hands on and pray for health-care workers—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, physicians' assistants, and so forth?

That's a prescription we can all fill.

Related Elsewhere:

News elsewhere includes:

Birth control debate sometimes plays out at pharmacy counter | Some pharmacists struggle to reconcile their personal beliefs with responsibilities. (May 15, 2005, Indianapolis Star)
Druggists stop selling birth-control pills | Some pharmacists take position on moral grounds, causing health care dilemma (May. 13, 2005, The State, S.C.)
Druggists in S.C. not refusing to dispense | South Carolina pharmacists can refuse to fill prescriptions, but so far this hasn't led to consumer complaints, say those who represent and regulate the profession. (May. 13, 2005, The State, S.C.)
Legislatures Grapple with 'Conscience Laws' | State legislatures and Congress are considering various "conscience laws." They would give health professionals the right to refuse to provide services that violate their moral or religious views. The list of objectionable treatments has expanded far beyond abortion. (May 14, 2005, Weekend Edition, NPR)
Pharmacists cite morals for pill bans | A survey found most of rural Missouri's pharmacies don't stock the morning-after pill. (May 12, 2005, Columbia Missourian, Missouri)
Pharmacies May Be Forced to Dispense Birth Control | In response to a growing number of reports of women whose birth control prescriptions were denied by pharmacists on moral grounds, US Senators and House members Thursday introduced legislation to ensure that women are able to get such prescriptions filled. (Reuters, Apr 14, 2005)
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Other CT articles on birth control include:

Bitter Pills | What does RU-486 change about abortion? A Christianity Today editorial. (Dec. 11, 2000)
Bitter Pill | FDA strengthens warning on RU-486. (Jan. 24, 2005)
Plan B (for Bad) | Christians fight to keep 'morning-after pill' under the counter.
Abortion Pill Critic Named to Drug Panel | David Hager appointed to committee despite criticism from prochoice camps (Feb. 13, 2003)
FDA Candidate Irks Abortion Pill Advocates | The Christian Medical Association says critics fear David Hager's "well-grounded" opposition. (Nov. 26, 2002)
RU-486 Deaths Prompt Outcry | Danco Labs warns doctors about dangers of 'early option' pill (May 24, 2002)

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