Senate Considers Revoking Pharmacist "Conscience Clauses"

JUNE 01, 2005
Ken Rankin

A pharmacist's right to refuse to dispense prescription contraceptives or other drugs on moral or religious grounds would be revoked under new legislation now being debated on Capitol Hill. The bill, introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, CA), would require pharmacies to "fill all valid prescriptions without unnecessary delay or interference."

According to Boxer, the legislation is a response to growing complaints from women "about pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for contraceptives because of their personal beliefs, not their medical concerns." Arguing that "access to pharmaceuticals should depend on medical judgments, not personal ideology," she warned Congress that, unless action is taken to address this problem now, "tomorrow pharmacists could refuse to dispense any drug for any medical condition."

Under the proposal, all pharmacies that accept reimbursement from Medicaid or the new Medicare Part D drug program would be federally obliged to fill any valid prescription-notwithstanding religious considerations or state "conscience clause" laws protecting pharmacists from being forced to dispense drugs that create moral problems for them.

"That means, if the item is not in stock, the pharmacy should order it according to its standard procedures, or, if the customer prefers, transfer it to another pharmacy or give the prescription back," Boxer explained. In seeking Senate support for the bill, the California Democrat stressed that her proposal would not interfere with valid "medical reasons" for declining to honor a prescription, "including problems with dosages, harmful interactions with other drugs, or potential drug abuse."

Boxer also attempted to defuse objections that the measure would override the religious beliefs of pharmacists. "In this bill, it is the responsibility of the pharmacy, not the pharmacist, to ensure that prescriptions are filled," she said. "Pharmacies can accommodate their employees in any manner that they wish, as long as customers get their medications without delay, interference, or harassment."

Mr. Rankin is a freelance medical writer.