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Pharmacists' Rights at Front Of New Debate

"That's like saying, 'I don't kill people myself but let me tell you about the guy down the street who does.' What's that saying? 'I will not off your husband, but I know a buddy who will?' It's the same thing," said Brauer, who now works at a hospital pharmacy.

Large pharmacy chains, including Walgreens, Wal-Mart and CVS, have instituted similar policies that try to balance pharmacists' and customers' rights.

Karen L. Brauer, Pharmacists for Life president, defends the right of pharmacists to refuse medicine. (Courtesy of Karen L. Bauer)

Refill Laws by States: A number of states have either passed laws or are considering laws that allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions, such as birth control and morning-after pills.
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"We obviously do have pharmacists with individual moral and ethical beliefs. When it does happen, the pharmacist is asked to notify the manager that they have decided not to fill the prescription, and the manager has the obligation to make sure the customer has access to the prescription by another means," said Tiffany Bruce, a spokeswoman for Walgreens. "We have to respect the pharmacist, but we have to also respect the right of the person to receive the prescription."

Women's advocates say such policies are impractical, especially late at night in emergency situations involving the morning-after pill, which must be taken within 72 hours. Even in non-urgent cases, poor women have a hard time getting enough time off work or money to go from one pharmacy to another. Young women, who are often frightened and unsure of themselves, may simply give up when confronted by a judgmental pharmacist.

"What is a woman supposed to do in rural America, in places where there may only be one pharmacy?" asked Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which is launching a campaign today to counter the trend. "It's a slap in the face to women."

By the time Suzanne Richards, 21, finally got another pharmacy to fill her morning-after pill prescription -- after being rejected by a drive-through Brooks Pharmacy in Laconia, N.H., one late Saturday night in September -- the 72 hours had long passed.

"When he told me he wouldn't fill it, I just pulled over in the parking lot and started crying," said Richards, a single mother of a 3-year-old who runs her own cleaning service. "I just couldn't believe it. I was just trying to be responsible."

In the end, Richards turned out not to be pregnant, and Pulz was able to obtain her prescription last June directly from her doctor, though she does not think she was pregnant, either.

"I was lucky," Pulz said. "I can sympathize with someone who feels strongly and doesn't want to be involved. But they should just step out of the way and not interfere with someone else's decision. It's just not right."

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