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Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico), November 2, 2007

Catholic Pharmacists Defy Pope; Plan B Dispensed Routinely in N.M.

Catholic pharmacists in New Mexico routinely dispense an emergency contraceptive drug called Plan B that drew fire this week from Pope Benedict XVI, industry leaders say.

The issue of contraceptive drugs is a sensitive one in New Mexico. Three Catholic pharmacists contacted this week declined to speak publicly about the issue.

Speaking this week at the 25th International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists, Benedict urged pharmacists to avoid dispensing drugs with "immoral purposes such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia."

Benedict elaborated by expressing disfavor for drugs "that have the goal of preventing the implantation of the embryo or shortening a person's life."

The remarks appear directed at Plan B, the brand name of a drug that prevents ovulation or blocks the embryo from implanting in the womb.

Plan B can be sold over the counter in New Mexico to women 18 and older and by prescription to girls 17 or younger. State regulations also allow pharmacists to prescribe Plan B if they have received appropriate training.

The federal Food and Drug Administration approved Plan B in 1999 and approved it as an over-the-counter drug in 2006.

Dale Tinker, executive director of the New Mexico Pharmacists Association, said about 360 of the state's 1,600 pharmacists have received the training required to prescribe Plan B.

A state Health Policy Commission report published this month found that a sizable majority of New Mexico pharmacists surveyed dispense Plan B.

Of 177 pharmacies that responded to the survey, 85 percent said they dispensed Plan B with a prescription and 73 percent dispense it as an over-the-counter drug, the report found.

Legislators requested the study earlier this year to help assess the availability of Plan B in New Mexico.

Tinker said the survey shows the drug is readily available in New Mexico. He said he is familiar with only one case of a pharmacist refusing to dispense Plan B.

Tinker also said he would oppose legislation that requires pharmacists to dispense Plan B. The issue is one that is likely to re-emerge in a future legislative session, he said.

The leader of a women's advocacy group said Benedict's remarks could encourage pharmacists to impose their religious and moral beliefs on patients.

"Health care providers shouldn't be imposing their own religion beliefs on patients," said Jane Wishner, executive director of Southwest Women's Law Center.

One Catholic pharmacist said Wednesday he believes that he and others in his profession put their responsibility to patients ahead of religious beliefs when asked to dispense the drug, often called "the morning after pill."

"We take an oath to act in the public's best interest and make sure the drugs are used properly," the pharmacist said. "You try not to keep your personal beliefs from doing your job."

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