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Virginia pharmacy had plenty of moral convictions, few clients

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, April 13, 2010; B01

The Divine Mercy Care Pharmacy in Chantilly proudly and purposefully limited what it would stock on its shelves. But it turns out that no birth control pills, no condoms, no porn, no tobacco and even no makeup added up to one thing:

No customers.

The self-described "pro-life" pharmacy went out of business last month, less than two years after it opened to great fanfare, with a Catholic priest sprinkling holy water on the strip-mall store tucked between an Asian supermarket and a scuba shop.

No word on whether he returned for last rites.

The drugstore was one of a handful across the country that have put the moral conviction of a pharmacist at the forefront of a business. And as a business model, that's fine, I guess.

The nearby scuba store shouldn't be required to sell Snuba equipment, the Airsoft Guns shop across the street shouldn't have to sell the Kalashnikov paintball model and, of course, Lotus Vegetarian down the way shouldn't have to serve up burgers.

John T. Bruchalski, president of Divine Mercy Care and the doctor who opened the pharmacy, then had to close it, said he wanted a place where pharmacists "could bring their conscience into the store, rather than hang it up at the door when they entered."

Unfortunately, the location was within walking distance of at least one other drugstore and across the street from a Kmart with a pharmacy.

It makes little sense to make another stop to fill a prescription across the street for moral reasons, especially considering that Kmart is probably a regular shopping place for even the most devout Christians. I mean, where else can you get a $14.99 cubic zirconia cross, a $1.49 Blessed Mother candle, lawn fertilizer for that lawn your lovely offspring will play on and a crockpot for the church cook-off under one roof?

"The biggest negative was that convenience factor," Bruchalski said.

A half-dozen similar pharmacies in such places as Louisiana, Florida and Indiana are faring just fine, said Karen Brauer, president of Pharmacists for Life International, a coalition of pharmacists who also have moral issues with the full array of services that their profession entails.

The Chantilly pharmacy opened as an offshoot of Divine Mercy Care in Fairfax and the Tepeyac Family Center, which adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

It opened amid a string of well-publicized incidents in the United States and abroad in which pharmacists refused to fill women's prescriptions for birth control or the morning-after pill and, in some cases, refused to refer the women to another pharmacist or return the prescription to her.

When it opened, the folks at Divine Mercy Care said they also wouldn't refer patients elsewhere. But in their nearly two years in business, there were no reported incidents of women turned away, humiliated or scolded. Bruchalski said they were very careful to advertise exactly who they were and what they believed.

Still, it always seemed a bit out of place. In a shopping area where women in colorful saris pass by spiky-haired kids looking at animé books and people dropping hounds at doggie day camp, and where so many languages, nationalities, colors and sizes blend, a business that relied on restriction rather than openness did not quite fit.

On a busy weekend shopping day, after marveling at a 26-pound jackfruit and thousands of noodle varieties at the neighboring Asian supermarket, I stood outside the closed pharmacy and asked passersby if they missed it.

"I didn't even notice it when it was open," one woman said. About a dozen others said basically the same thing.

Shoppers in Northern Virginia apparently weren't clamoring for a place to pick up cough medicine that also didn't sell porn, cigs and mascara. Selections of these wicked products (especially mascara -- have you seen the array recently? Glittery! Lengthening! Stiletto lashes! Such naughtiness!) are available in just about every supermarket and big-box store across the country.

"The marketplace spoke, and women voted with their feet," said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women's Law Center, a Washington advocacy group.

The other places across the country where the pharmacies are doing well are in more rural areas, where there isn't the abundant competition that Divine Mercy Care faced, Bruchalski said.

But that's the big problem with permitting pharmacies to dictate what they want to prescribe, Greenberger said. "What about places where women don't have alternatives?" she asked.

Perhaps Divine Mercy was doomed by its competition, or maybe, despite the Sunday Mass boosterism of the Divine Mercy business, Northern Virginia Catholics aren't as pro-life the rest of the week.

Research conducted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops estimated that only 4 percent of married, Catholic couples use natural family planning.

And as anyone who has been to church lately knows, many Catholic women also use mascara.

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