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'Pro-Life' Drugstores Market Beliefs

Robert Semler will run DMC Pharmacy, set to open in Chantilly.
Robert Semler will run DMC Pharmacy, set to open in Chantilly.
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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

When DMC Pharmacy opens this summer on Route 50 in Chantilly, the shelves will be stocked with allergy remedies, pain relievers, antiseptic ointments and almost everything else sold in any drugstore. But anyone who wants condoms, birth control pills or the Plan B emergency contraceptive will be turned away.

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That's because the drugstore, located in a typical shopping plaza featuring a Ruby Tuesday, a Papa John's and a Kmart, will be a "pro-life pharmacy" -- meaning, among other things, that it will eschew all contraceptives.

The pharmacy is one of a small but growing number of drugstores around the country that have become the latest front in a conflict pitting patients' rights against those of health-care workers who assert a "right of conscience" to refuse to provide care or products that they find objectionable.

"The United States was founded on the idea that people act on their conscience -- that they have a sense of right and wrong and do what they think is right and moral," said Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel at the Thomas More Society, a Chicago public-interest law firm that is defending a pharmacist who was fined and reprimanded for refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control pills. "Every pharmacist has the right to do the same thing," Brejcha said.

But critics say the stores could create dangerous obstacles for women seeking legal, safe and widely used birth control methods.

"I'm very, very troubled by this," said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center, a Washington advocacy group. "Contraception is essential for women's health. A pharmacy like this is walling off an essential part of health care. That could endanger women's health."

The pharmacies are emerging at a time when a variety of health-care workers are refusing to perform medical procedures they find objectionable. Fertility doctors have refused to inseminate gay women. Ambulance drivers have refused to transport patients for abortions. Anesthesiologists have refused to assist in sterilizations.

The most common, widely publicized conflicts have involved pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills, morning-after pills and other forms of contraception. They say they believe that such methods can cause what amounts to an abortion and that the contraceptives promote promiscuity, divorce, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and other societal woes. The result has been confrontations that have left women traumatized and resulted in pharmacists being fired, fined or reprimanded.

In response, some pharmacists have stopped carrying the products or have opened pharmacies that do not stock any.

"This allows a pharmacist who does not wish to be involved in stopping a human life in any way to practice in a way that feels comfortable," said Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, which promotes a pharmacist's right to refuse to fill such prescriptions. The group's Web site lists seven pharmacies around the country that have signed a pledge to follow "pro-life" guidelines, but Brauer said there are many others.

"It's just the tip of the iceberg," she said. "And there's new ones happening all the time."

Some pro-life pharmacies are identical to typical drugstores except that they do not stock some or all forms of contraception. Others also refuse to sell tobacco, rolling papers or pornography. Many offer "alternative" products, including individually compounded prescription drugs, as well as vitamins and homeopathic and herbal remedies.


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